ITER: ‘International Race for Fusion Energy Project’
On first look, the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy (CCFE) might just look like a lab, but the work happening inside will change the future of humanity forever. Its aim? To create energy, efficient energy that will never run out. Energy that will power our homes and drive our cars cheaply. It will save humanity…that is, if humans don’t spoil it first.
Science Editor Vasily Koledov visits the site and learns about the inner workings of the international fusion research project ITER: a project wrestling with budget constraints, global politics and even defence ministries looking for information on nuclear bombs. Thankfully, a team of dedicated scientists are working against all that to rescue the future of the planet. Tony Donne, head of Eurofusion at CCFE, tells Vasily about how fusion can change the world and what still needs to be done for it to do so.
VK: Tony, thank you for taking your time to meet. Please could you explain the situation at the moment?
TD: Right now we are at CCFE which operates the JET Fusion reactor which is the Largest working fusion reactor in the world. The reactor is close to hitting break even (make as much fusion energy output as energy input to start the reaction). The research here is focused on studying hot plasma inside the reactor which heats up to 100-150 million degrees Celsius.
Alongside this, we are helping build the ITER reactor in France which is currently one of the largest scientific projects worldwide at a cost of around 16bn EUR. This will be a 500MW reactor, capable of delivering 10x more power than is currently being put in.
ITER is an international project, being built in France with participation from Russia, India, China, the U.S. and many other countries. Brazil is also planning to join.
In parallel we are preparing to start work on DEMO which will be a follow on project from ITER and will be a fully working 2GW plant ready to be plugged in to the grid.
VK: What is the status of ITER – I know the project has been plagued by delays and cost over runs?
TD: ITER has had its share of problems. Personally, I think it has become too political (by politicians, not scientists). Selection of manufacturing is based on regional allocation rather than actual competency at the manufacturing. All the parties involved want to deliver finished products. Everyone wants to make superconducting coils, vacuum vessel cooling systems in particular.
So you end up with five factories built to make materials around the world whereas it could all have been done with one. Also all parties “deliver in kind” (i.e. deliver finished products) so the actual central team running the project has no money. The central team sets its requirements and sends to parties. Parties come back saying they do not have the budget and so things take far longer than they should. Having a decentralised model has led to ITER suffering a lot from a cost and time perspective. Current estimates are that is should be online by 2024-25.
So you end up with five factories built to make materials around the world whereas it could all have been done with one. If budgeted and executed more sensibly, ITER could have been built for half the price.
If budgeted and executed more sensibly, ITER could have been built for half the price. This has impact on work going on at DEMO as it will be too early to start work on this full speed until ITER is complete and we can get data from it.
VK: What about competition from the U.S., including the National Ignition Facility (NIF)? I also heard of some developments in the tokomak field by Lockheed Martin and other private corporations?
TD: NIF (the principal U.S. based fusion project which unlike the tokomak design in JET and ITER is aimed at starting a reaction by firing lasers at a helium particle) are far behind magnetic fusion. They have not reached ignition, they’ve just managed to obtain net yields and alpha particles. But what they did not calculate is that they have 196 lasers that are 200m long [which they need to fire up to start the ignition]and so they miscalculated energy requirement by a factor of 10,000. They also are only able to do the ignition once per day and as such, have a very long way to go.