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Fusion energy could open the door to world peace

The international project aiming to create an almost limitless energy supply could ease geopolitical tensions and promote transnational working on a grand scale – claims Michel Claessens

In a global context of decreased accessibility to low-cost fossil fuel sources and an estimated three-fold increase in world energy demand by 2100, energy is one of the major issues for this century. How will we supply this additional energy and how can we do so without upsetting the fragile environmental balance of our planet?

Fusion may be part of the answer. The energy source that powers the sun and the stars could provide a safe, non-carbon emitting and virtually limitless source of energy. The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor is a large-scale scientific experiment intended to prove the viability of fusion as an energy source. Now ITER is under construction in the south of France.

In an unprecedented international effort, seven partners—China, the European Union plus Switzerland, India, Japan, Korea, Russia and the United States—have pooled their financial and scientific resources to take fusion energy to the threshold of industrial exploitation. Although ITER will not produce electricity, it aims to resolve critical scientific and technical issues and thereby taking fusion to the point where industrial applications would be designed.

By producing 500 megawatts of power from an input of 50 MW a gain – factor of 10 – ITER will be the proof of principle for magnetically-confined burning plasmas that opens the way to the next step: a demonstration fusion power plant. The fusion machine is a tokamak-type reactor – a Russian acronym for toroidal chamber and magnetic coils – relying on confining the plasma with a strong magnetic field.

On-site construction of the scientific facility began in 2010. The project has made the transition from design to fabrication of large-scale mock-ups and components, in addition to construction of buildings. Beginning in 2014, the components will be shipped from the manufacturing sites in the four corners of the world to the construction site in France where they will be assembled into the ITER device.

The completion of the construction of the ITER facility will enable the detailed study of magnetically-confined burning plasmas. This is an experimental regime, which is not accessible in current facilities. Previous experiments on the Tokamak Fusion Test Reactor or ‘TFTR’ in the US and the Joint European Torus or ‘JET’ in the United Kingdom studied low-power burning plasma experiments with a gain factor of one. These pioneering experiments identified interesting and important scientific issues, which can only be fully explored on ITER due to the strong interaction of the self-heating mechanism with the background plasma.

The complexity of the machine’s design has already pushed a whole range of leading-edge technologies to new limits. Innovative solutions are being developed to address specific ITER challenges. The project requires an extremely wide range of industrial systems: vacuum, remote-handling, optics, cryogenics, materials, high heat flux components, superconductors, microwaves sources, computer codes, welding techniques and so on.

Component manufacturing is progressing in factories throughout the world. In the summer 2014, the first components for the ITER Tokamak – some of them exceptionally large and heavy – will be arriving in France from the seven members. During the peak years of 2014-2017, on-site assembly and construction operations will require a work force of close to 4,000. The project will become an operational laboratory in November 2020 with its first plasma. However, there is currently a two-year delay compared to the official schedule. The causes for schedule slippage are multiple and include technical issues, late changes of the tokamak design, the high number of countries involved, the first-of-a-kind nature of ITER and management challenges for the whole project organisation.

But this is also an education project as the 35 participant countries have decided to learn together and share the new technology. If ITER succeeds, it will open the doors not only to a new source of energy on earth but also to peace worldwide as the very large inventory of hydrogen – the fusion fuel – on the planet is expected to diminish geopolitical tensions.

We can see that ITER is a unique international project. It relies on the close working relationship of a large number of participating nations, representing more than 50 per cent of the world’s population and 80 per cent of the planet’s gross industrial product. In the interest of advancing toward viable fusion energy, these nations are pooling scientific and technological knowhow and resources. Every day, men and women from 35 different nations are inventing new ways of working together both here on the site in Saint Paul-lez-Durance, France, and at the domestic agencies of the ITER members. Fusion is probably the only energy ‘disruptive technology’ currently in development. It is likely to play a major role in the middle of this century.

Michel Claessens is head of communication at the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor in France

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