In Cadarache, near Aix en Provence in Southern France, one of the biggest scientific collaborations on the planet is underway.
Thirty four nations representing more than half the world’s population have joined forces in this an ambitious attempt to produce energy using the same process as the sun.
Known as Iter, meaning “the way” in Latin, the international nuclear fusion project is aimed at creating a new kind of reactor capable of producing unlimited supplies of cheap, clean, safe and sustainable electricity from atomic fusion.
It will weigh three times the equivalent of the Eiffel Tower and cover a space the size of 60 football fields.
The idea is to reproduce the fusion process that occurs at the core of our Sun, when hydrogen nuclei collide, fusing into heavier helium atoms and releasing tremendous amounts of energy. In Iter, the fusion reaction will be achieved in a tokamak device that uses magnetic fields to contain and control the plasma, which will be heated to extremely high temperatures.
Iter’s recently appointed director general, Bernard Bigot, strongly believes that this is the answer to our planet’s energy needs.
“The biggest advantage is the fuel used, which is hydrogen,” says Mr. Bigot. “There is a lot of hydrogen in nature. You find it in the sea and in lakes. So we have an endless source of fuel for millions of years to come. Another advantage is the way we will handle the waste: radioactive waste is produced, but its lifespan is very short: just a few hundred years, compared to millions of years in the case of fission.”
Also, according to Bernard Bigot, in the event of a problem, nuclear fusion can be easily interrupted, which is not the case for nuclear fission, where radioactive energy continues to be produced even after the process has been halted.
Before actual assembly work of the nuclear reactor can start, the components must first be assembled virtually by computer. Assembling the components, which come from all over the world, requires extremely precise measurements.
There are also several problems that need to be addressed. For example, Tritium, used for the reaction, is a short-lasting radioactive isotope. If released accidentally, there is no stopping the leak. But, according to Bernard Bigot, dangers are limited for the nearby population.
“In the event of an accident – a leak, for example – the reactor is not leakproof, so the gas matter would leak into nature. The quantities released into nature would allow the population living around the reactor to stay where they are and resume their activities,” he says.
A pipeline is being designed, which would suck in the dangerous tritium released in the event of an accident. Another major problem with the Iter project is its enormous cost. Currently estimated at 16 billion euros, it has trebled since the initial estimations back in 2006.
“The problem is not just the cost, but the quantity of energy which will be produced. And frankly, I believe that, despite the cost, which is indeed very high, the quantity of energy produced over a long, very long period of time, justifies the initial investment,” concludes Bernard Bigot.
It’s hoped Iter’s first supplies of commercially produced energy could start in 2050.
Creating a replica of the Sun’s on Earth – an ambitious dream perhaps, but one these scientists firmly believe in.
For more information about the ITER project: