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World powers back hotter-than-the-sun reactor

Günther Oettinger, European Commissioner for Energy, addresses representatives of ITER Member States at the construction site on 6 September 2013. Image courtesy of ITER
Günther Oettinger, European Commissioner for Energy, addresses representatives of ITER Member States at the construction site on 6 September 2013. Image courtesy of ITER

Ministers representing many of the world's main economic powers met on 6 September 2013 to show their support for one of the world’s most ambitious scientific experiments – a nuclear fusion reactor that will operate at temperatures ten times hotter than the core of the sun.

Representatives from the seven regions that are backing ITER – the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor – met for only the second time at the site of the planned reactor in southern France in September to underline the importance of the project.

‘Not to invest in fusion would be a big mistake,’ said Günther Oettinger, the European Commissioner for Energy. ‘We have oil for the next 20, 30, or maybe 40 years; but nobody knows what will happen at the end of the century. We have to switch and we need to invest in new, innovative energy generating technology for our children.’

ITER aims to produce energy through the same nuclear reaction that powers the sun. But, while the centre of the sun burns at 15 million degrees Celsius, the hydrogen inside the ITER reactor will be heated to some 150 million degrees Celsius.

At that temperature, electrons are ripped off individual atoms to form plasma, where nuclei float in a sea of electrons.

The high temperature means the plasma cannot be allowed to touch the sides of the reactor. So it will be suspended amid a vacuum in a toroid – a doughnut shape – using some of the world’s most powerful magnets.

‘The magnetic field will put very high mechanical stress on the supporting structure,’ said fusion physicist Dr Osama Motojima, ITER's Director-General. ‘So we developed an engineering design almost close to the limit of the material.’

Vast rewards 

The potential rewards of the project are vast: fusion-based power would solve much of the world's energy needs without the dangers of traditional nuclear reactors.

But the difficulty of the technology means it will take time. ITER is aiming to start the most important test reactions in 2027. Success then will mean simply that the principle has worked so that plans can begin to construct commercial reactors to supply electricity grids. These might not come on line till 2040 or later.

‘We have oil for the next 20, 30, or maybe 40 years; but nobody knows what will happen at the end of the century. We have to switch and we need to invest in new, innovative energy generating technology for our children.’

Günther H. Oettinger, European Commissioner for Energy

Work began in 2010 on the 42-hectare site in Saint Paul-lez-Durance, in the hills of Provence, France, where China, the EU, India, Japan, Russia, South Korea and the United States are collaborating on ITER.

So far, a five-storey headquarters building and an assembly building have been built, and the foundations have been prepared for the main reactor. 

Less hazardous

The reactive materials used in fusion are less hazardous than those for traditional fission reactors. Fission occurs when a large nucleus splits, giving off energy, and it normally uses radioactive forms of uranium, which pose a threat if the reaction leaks. 

The fusion reactions being worked on consist of two small nuclei – of hydrogen – which collide to form helium, giving off energy in the process. Though some of the hydrogen used will be radioactive – the reaction needs heavier isotopes than the most common form of hydrogen – it will be easier to store and manage than uranium. Moreover, only tiny amounts will be needed because of the huge amounts of energy given off in the reactions.

However, mastery of nuclear fusion has proved elusive for half a century. Fusion reactions have been achieved in other test facilities, such as JET, the Joint European Torus, in the United Kingdom. But these runs have lasted just a few seconds.

While JET almost achieved ‘break-even’ – when a fusion reaction produces as much energy as was needed to set it off – it has not produced commercially viable amounts. ITER's goal is to sustain a fusion reaction for several minutes: for 50 MW of input power, it's aiming to produce 500 MW of output, enough to show that the technology is practical.

The public and scientific community is more supportive than in the past over the chances of success, says Motojima, whose career in plasma physics dates back to the 1970s. A Japanese fusion device he managed from 1998, the Large Helical Device Experiment (LHD), was greeted at the start with widespread scepticism, he said.

‘When we started to build the LHD in Japan, more than 50 % of people said, “It’s crazy, it’s not possible”,’ he said. ‘But now, nobody is saying it’s not possible here. That’s encouraging.’

If it is successful, the international participants will take the technology and try to put it to commercial use. South Korea – which, like Japan, has almost no fossil fuel resources – even has a fusion law that authorises an annual budget for research, currently about EUR 185 million.

So instead of each country pooling funds and the project being carried out centrally, 90 % of the equipment is being contributed in-kind, with each country assigned to build certain pieces. Roads, bridges and roundabouts have been adapted to form a 104 kilometre route for components arriving by sea before they are assembled like a high-tech jigsaw puzzle.

An aerial view of the site. Image courtesy of ITER.An aerial view of the site. Image courtesy of ITER.

In the building phase, each step has to wait for a previous one to be finished – but these steps are sometimes held up by the arrangements for contract awards in the participating countries. ‘Intensive effort and innovative methods will be required to meet ... the challenge of staying within a tight but realistic schedule while containing costs,’ said Oettinger.

The EU is providing 45 % of the funding for ITER. Though most other participants offered firm commitments, the US representative, Edmund Synakowski, Associate Director of Science for Fusion Energy Sciences at the US Department of Energy, emphasised that Congress would first have to approve continued US funding. A decision is expected next year.

During the meeting, the ministerial representatives reaffirmed the significance of the ITER experiment as an important step towards fusion energy, and underlined the fact that the project is also defining a new model for international scientific collaboration.

Europe needs to invest in its long-term energy security - EU Commissioner for Energy, Günther Oettinger

Where does ITER and fusion technology fit into Europe’s wider energy policy?

‘Ensuring a high level of security of supply is a big challenge for all continents, but especially for Europe because we do not have many natural sources of fossil fuel and spend billions of euros on fuel imports each year. Investing in research, innovation, and the development of new technologies is a must for Europe and I think nuclear fusion is a realistic option. Not to invest in fusion would be a big mistake. It makes sense for Europe to invest together with competent partners from highly industrialised countries such as the United States, Russia, Japan, South Korea, India, and China. Locating the investment and the infrastructure within Europe, at the ITER site in France, represents an ideal partnership and a good option for Europe.’

What about the time required for fusion to become a viable energy source for Europe’s citizens?

‘Investment in research, namely in energy research, is a long-term investment – not just for the next few years but for the coming decades. If we are now experiencing the oil peak, then we have oil for the next 20, 30, or maybe 40 years; but nobody knows what will happen at the end of the century. We have to switch and we need to invest in new, innovative energy-generating technology for our children, for 2030, 2040, 2050, and beyond. The priority is not to know whether it will be in 2027 or 2031 (that we produce this power), but it’s going to be soon and we are doing it to offer our children a broader energy mix than today. I think that’s a good enough reason to take all of these steps.’

Do you think fusion is an expensive form of energy generation in comparison with other energy sources currently available?

‘Energy investments are expensive and in Europe today we spend 10 % of our Gross Domestic Product (GDP) on heating, cooling, power, and transport, for example, and this figure is set to increase to 15 %. I think it’s wise to optimise energy investment and to develop technologies with no greenhouse gas emissions, which will consequently avoid damage to nature and help to prevent climate change.’

How confident are you that this technology will be effective in producing significant amounts of power?

‘I am not an engineer; I studied law, but I have many contacts who are energy specialists, experts, or engineers and they are realistic about the situation, but also confident and positive. These are not just German, Dutch, or French engineers; they are engineers from many European Member States and from our Chinese partners. If engineers from seven high-tech countries are convinced by the technology, then I as a lawyer and politician am convinced as well.’

Do you think nuclear fusion technology will be accepted by those who are currently opposed to nuclear fission?

‘We have to decide what our energy future is, but EU countries do not exist in isolation; each country has to accept decisions from its neighbouring countries. At present, we have 14 Member States in the EU with nuclear energy systems, and 14 without nuclear. However, nuclear fusion is not the same as nuclear fission, it’s totally different. We have to make it clear to people what the technical and technological process that occurs inside a fusion plant is. I’m sure that whether or not countries currently choose to accept nuclear fission, they can and should accept and use nuclear fusion.’

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