The ITER project is truly at the frontier of knowledge, a collective effort to explore the tantalising future of free, clean and inexhaustible energy offered by nuclear fusion. Where the Large Hadron Collider at CERN pushes the boundaries of physics to find the origins of matter, the ITER project seeks to give humans an endless stream of power which could have potentially game-changing consequences for the entire planet. In this article, Robert Arnoux from ITER offers us his vision of nuclear fusion.
Opinion: A new star will soon be born, a star unlike any other … a man-made star. ITER— both the Latin word for “The Way” and the acronym of International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor—will light up in the early years of the coming decade. 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.
The ITER project, a multibillion-euro international collaboration that brings together China, the European Union, India, Japan, Korea, Russia and the United States, is the culmination of 60 years of research and decades of diplomatic negotiation. It was the dream of three generations of physicists; it is now the reality of the hundreds of scientists, engineers and labourers gathered in southern France where the ITER installation is under construction.
The ITER machine is a tokamak, the Russian acronym for Toroidal Chamber, Magnetic Coils. Tokamaks were developed in the Soviet Union in the 1960s at a time when nations were experimenting with all kinds of different systems to reproduce the nuclear reactions at work in the core of the Sun and stars.
A tokamak, like a star, is designed to fuse light atoms into heavier ones. A tokamak is a magnificent tribute to Albert Einstein’s E=mc2: the tiny loss of mass that results from the fusion process translates into a huge quantity of energy. One gram of fusion fuel (the hydrogen isotopes deuterium and tritium) generates as much power as eight tons of oil.
ITER will be by far the largest and most complex tokamak ever built. Designed from the experience accumulated by hundreds of fusion machines throughout the world, it will demonstrate that fusion energy is scientifically and technologically feasible.
ITER will be the first tokamak to achieve a net production of fusion power, giving back ten times the energy invested to light the fusion fire—a crucial demonstration that would open the way to the industrial and commercial production of fusion-generated electricity.
To a world that craves ever greater amounts of electricity (global consumption will more than double by 2050), fusion energy offers an exceptionally attractive option: it is intrinsically safe; its environmental impact is low (no greenhouse-effect gases emitted or high-level, long-lived nuclear waste to manage) and the fuel supply is universally available and almost inexhaustible.
The ITER project was officially born at the Geneva Summit in November 1985 when Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev agreed to launch an international effort to develop fusion energy “as an inexhaustible source of energy for the benefit of all mankind.”
As conflicts between nations most often arise over the control of energy sources, ITER was also meant as a project for peace.
The original ITER Members numbered four: the European Union (Euratom), Japan, the Soviet Union and the United States, joined by China and Korea in 2003 and by India in 2005. The ITER Organization, with the legal status of an international organization like CERN or the European Space Agency, was officially established in October 2007.
It took some twenty years to produce a design that would be scientifically, technologically and financially acceptable to all the ITER Members and four more years, beginning in the summer of 2001, to decide on the location where the machine would be built.
On 28 June 2005, the ITER Members unanimously agreed on the site proposed by Europe: a 180-hectare stretch of land adjacent to CEA-Cadarache, France’s largest nuclear research centre located in the Durance River Valley some 75 kilometres north of Marseille.
Preparation work on the ITER site began in January 2007. Over two years a 42-hectare platform was cleared, levelled and readied for the construction work that began in earnest in the summer of 2010.
Four years later, in the 17-metre-deep, 90 × 130 metre Seismic Pit that will house the ITER Tokamak and its main auxiliary buildings, 4,000 tons of steel rebar are being installed for the second basemat. This 1.5-metre-thick reinforced concrete “floor” will support the weight of 360,000 tons—more than the Empire State Building.
In other areas of the platform, new buildings are rising while others await tooling installation: the Assembly Hall, the Cryostat Workshop, the Coil Winding Facility are just a few among the 39 buildings that will eventually occupy the entire surface of the platform.
The intense activity on the ITER site is only one aspect of the project’s overall progression; ITER is also advancing in factories all over the world.
A unique aspect of the project’s architecture is the in-kind procurement system that was established at the onset of the project. Instead of contributing financial resources only to the ITER Organization, China, the European Union, India, Japan, Korea, Russia and the United States will be providing the machine components (and also buildings in Europe’s case).
While it adds considerable complexity to the overall management and realization of the project, the in-kind procurement process forms the core of ITER founding philosophy, offering the ITER Members invaluable experience in the building of a fusion installation. By contributing to the construction of the experimental machine ITER, they are creating the technological and industrial basis for the commercial fusion reactors of the future.
ITER Members have already launched preliminary studies for a next-step machine named DEMO—a steady-state tokamak that some consider an industrial prototype and others a “pre-industrial demonstrator.” It is as yet uncertain whether the DEMO project will be an international collaboration like ITER, or a succession of national ventures.
When will the world benefit from fusion-generated electricity supplied massively to the grid? Building on the ITER and DEMO demonstrations, the decision to launch a fusion industry will proceed from political choice. As one of the major figures in fusion research, the Russian physicist Lev Artsimovitch (1909-1973), used to say, “Fusion will be available when society needs it.”
It is more than likely that in the context of an exponential rise in electricity demand, fossil fuel depletion, the challenge of climate change and the issue of conventional nuclear energy acceptability, fusion will be needed in the second half of this century.
To make this choice possible, men and women from 35 nations have gathered on a sun-drenched portion of land, near the village of Saint-Paul-lez-Durance in the heart of Provence. In this magnificent setting, they are working hard to realize one of mankind’s most enduring dreams: capturing the fire of the Sun and making it available to humanity for the millennia to come.