Breakthrough at the ITER Fusion Reactor Paves Way for Energy Source That May Alter the Course of Civilization | Opinion

A new star will soon be born, a star unlike any other: a man-made star. The ITER project, in construction in France, should light up in fifteen years and generate energy from the nuclear fusion reactions that occur in the Sun and the stars. From a scientific and technological point of view, it will be one of mankind's major accomplishments. The creation of an artificial star and the tapping of the tremendous amounts of energy produced will forever alter the course of civilization.

There has recently been a breakthrough on the project. 35 countries―China, the European Union and Switzerland, India, Japan, Korea, Russia and the United States of America―have started assembling the world's largest fusion reactor, ITER (International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor).

The international team succeeded to position the reactor's base (1,250 tonnes) in the building―a major milestone. 3,000 people will now assemble the world's largest "Meccano," as ten million pieces are converging to Saint-Paul-lez-Durance from thousands of factories across the world. A huge challenge with tight technical specifications and tolerances less than a millimetre for some components.
"At last," sceptics will say, keen to recall that fusion energy has been in development for over thirty years, "and will be forever thirty years away." True, ITER has been known mostly for its project delays and cost overruns. But the dream now seems to be becoming a reality.

The cryosat base of the ITER fusion reactor being installed on May 26. This is the first major component of what will be the world's biggest fusion reactor. ITER Organization

The ITER "tokamak" (Russian acronym for toroidal chamber with magnetic coils) will be a perfectly formed jewel of technology. Probably the most complex―and most expensive―machine ever built by mankind. With the largest magnets in the world, the most powerful cryogenic plant and endless banks of high-powered computers, ITER's ambition and scale are unprecedented.

The project was born in 1985, when Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev met for the first time in Geneva. They advocated the "widest international cooperation in obtaining [fusion] energy, which is essentially inexhaustible." ITER is therefore a "diplomatic technology" as the idea was also seen as a way out to the Cold War. Then the scientific community succeeded to market tokamak technology as the necessary way to fusion energy.

Since 2007, countries involved have worked together, aiming to generate a significant amount of energy from hydrogen fusion for the first time. The first experiments are scheduled for 2025, and full nuclear operations in 2035, although the senior management knows that further delays are unavoidable. "The complexity of the project is built-in," as they used to say. So, between 2035 and 2040, the reactor will heat up minute amounts of hydrogen isotopes (only 2 grams) at 150 million degrees (plasma), which will trigger their nuclei to fuse, like in the sun and the stars. This should generate a tremendous thermal power of 500 MW.

I worked on the ITER site for five years and the project is breathtaking. The challenges are about technology, engineering, logistics, management, and of course human resources. The ITER Organization, which is managing the project, currently has 1,000 staff from 35 countries, each bringing in their own culture, working habits and, for most of them, their family. I remember driving my youngest boy to the international school, which the French authorities set up to welcome the ITER families. Meeting every morning parents and children from America, Asia and Europe converging to the small city of Manosque in Provence was surreal and delightful at the same time.

ITER will test several technologies to breed the fuel (tritium) inside the tokamak―in my view one of the most valuable contributions of ITER. According to physicists, ITER will also make it possible to study the behavior and stability of a giant plasma.

However, it is not a given that ITER will open the way to the industrial production of fusion energy. Hence, the billion-dollar question, is the experiment worth the budget?

I have welcomed thousands of visitors at ITER and this question was systematically raised. This is understandable; ITER is financed by taxpayers' money and the construction budget quadrupled. Since 2016, the U.S. and Indian governments delayed their in-cash contributions to ITER. Even worse, we will never know the exact cost of the project as most contributions are in-kind and their cost is not public. According to the best estimates, the value of ITER in Europe will be €41bn ($45bn). Some say this is peanuts at global scale as it is the only disruptive technology we have in stock. ITER will be the most expensive scientific facility on Earth.

Most countries will benefit from the project, France in particular: with over half of the contracts awarded in Europe―currently €3.7bn ($4.1bn)out of a total of €6.4bn(7.2)―the French industry is the big winner. ITER helps companies advancing technology and developing spinoff applications in other sectors e.g. medical technology.

ITER may lead to the commercial development of fusion energy. However, this will not happen before 2050 and on the condition that we find new structural materials for the reactor's internal walls that can withstand the high energy and neutron fluxes. Furthermore, the supply of some existing materials, such as tritium and lithium-6, is now regarded as one of the most critical issues on the pathway to fusion energy.

It is estimated the completed tokamak will consist of one million parts once complete. ITER Organization

ITER is no longer the only research project on fusion. Two dozen private startups are developing similar or competitive technologies. Quite paradoxically, ITER stimulated these alternative projects. One may hope that any fusion technology would emerge quickly to meet the pressing needs of humankind and reduce the threats of irreversible climate change.

This is the new nuclear. The ITER project aims to "bring a Sun to Earth" and demonstrate that we can master nuclear fusion reactions to generate energy, very much like the stars. If we overcome the technology hurdles and if ITER succeeds, it may open the door to a new energy on Earth, safe and clean, which may replace non sustainable sources.

Views expressed in this article are the author's own.

Michel Claessens is the author of ITER: The Giant Fusion Reactor. His background is physical chemistry and science journalism. He was a Communication Director at ITER from 2011 to 2015. He is now in charge of the ITER policy and communication in the European Commission. Follow him @M_Claessens