ITER is now 10 years old. A few days ago it reached a ‘halfway’ milestone, with half of the project considered ‘built’ but not yet assembled and activated. Alongside space programmes, it is one of the few genuine examples of global scientific cooperation, with a partnership involving the EU, US, China, India, Japan, South Korea and Russia.
Rather than simply capturing energy from sunbeams, it aims at directly recreating the sun’s energy by mimicking its core chain reactions: nuclear fusion.
This is a key project not only for Europe but also for the world. While its end goal clearly represents a potential solution to some of our energy transition headaches, its milestones have many spill-over effects on several scientific fields (physics, chemistry, materials, plasma...).
The reactor is called ‘tokamak’ (a Russian acronym for Toroidalnaya Kamera Magnitnaya, or ‘toroidal chamber-magnetic’); its main component is a vacuum chamber where hydrogen becomes plasma under the joint effects of extreme heat (150 million C°) and pressure. Et voilà, nuclear fusion.
The advantages of fusion over fission are threefold. First, it doesn’t produce high-level radioactive waste (high-activity/long life); although there are still issues over the storage of shorter life radioactive waste (less than 100 years).
Second, there’s no risk of nuclear proliferation, since it doesn’t use fissile material such as uranium or plutonium (which can be weaponised).
Last, there’s no risk of melting of the core: if there’s a processing issue, the reaction just stops (in the case of nuclear fission, an accident can lead to such melting, creating a highly radioactive magma called corium).
ITER focuses on establishing controlled nuclear fusion on a large scale: with 50 MW input, its proponents expect to produce 500 MW in output (as heat, which will then create steam to operate turbines).
Last February I travelled to Cadarache, in the south of France, to better understand this whole endeavour.
The works started in 2010 on a 420,000 m2 field. For the past year, the first large components have been arriving on site - most partners contribute ‘in nature’ by producing and sending elements to be assembled (10 million parts, one million components).
This massive project fosters high-level research, engineering and technical jobs not only in France but also distributed around the globe.
From next year, those elements will be assembled; no easy feat as certain parts are huge yet have to be put together with the utmost accuracy.
The first plasma is expected by 2025, with full power reached by 2035. Unfortunately, we cannot afford to wait until then to start shifting our energy mix. Still, in the second half of this century, it could represent a useful source of clean power, alongside the massive ramp-up of renewables that we will need in any case, the sooner the better.
The other difficulty has been related to budget: it was initially estimated at €5bn, but €14bn-€15bn have been spent already, and about €4bn-€5bn more have been already enacted.
The EU finances 45 per cent of the project - 80 per cent of this share come from the EU budget, the remaining 20 per cent directly from France since it hosts the reactor.
On this part I sincerely hope (and truly believe) that under the leadership of ITER’s current Director-General Bernard Bigot, both the budget and calendar will be followed much more accurately. It seems to be already the case as the project is more or less back on track. Here comes the sun.