ITER: The Way to Industrial-Scale Nuclear Fusion

The goal of this project is to build a power plant capable of producing 10 times more energy than is required for the initiation of the process. The building costs of the world’s first effective fusion power plant are estimated at $16 billion. It should become operational in the early 2030s. It will be the ultimate test of human capacity to harness the energy of the Sun and produce cheap, clean energy.

Fossil fuels helped us shape this world to our measure and spur technological advancements to the scales unimaginable just decades ago. But now their time is past, or at least we have to prepare for an inevitable goodbye. Globalization and economic liberalization are pushing a large number of developing countries towards accelerated industrialization, resulting in higher energy demands. Even at this level of fossil fuel consumption, we are seriously damaging our environment, and with rising energy demands, any further increase of greenhouse gases could tip the entire world climate over the edge.

The first experiments with nuclear fusion began in 1930s, and the biggest contribution to this field of research was that of the former Soviet Union scientists. In 1968, they created the device called tokamak (fusion chamber), which is the concept behind the most advanced research in the domain of nuclear fusion on Earth. So far no one has been able to achieve plasma energy breakeven point, the moment when a nuclear fusion device produces more energy than it consumes. The most promising project in the world is a joined effort of the international community, known as ITER (International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, also Latin for ‘the road’, ‘the way’). The idea for ITER was born in 1995, during the Geneva Superpower Conference, where former leaders of the U.S., Soviet Union, the U.K, and France achieved a general consensus to initiate an international project for the development of fusion energy for peaceful purposes. At that time, it was the most ambitious scientific project on an international level, and, with the exception of the International Space Station, it still is. In addition to the EU, this project joined forces of six other great nations that represent half of the world’s population (the U.S., Russia, China, India, Japan, and South Korea). This installation will be located in southern France, where the initial phase of a ten year-long construction process started in 2007. In 2010, the site was officially handed over to ITER Organization.
ITER represents the culmination of many years of scientific research in the field of nuclear fusion. Fusion is the power of stars. At high pressure and extreme temperatures, agitated atomic particles collide and fuse into heavier elements, generating tremendous energy in the process. Because of the absence of such pressure here on Earth, for such reaction to occur, ten times higher temperature is needed than in the Sun’s core, which is 15, 000, 000˚C. At 150, 000, 000˚C a gas becomes a plasma, which is an ideal environment for fusion of hydrogen isotopes deuterium (D) and tritium (T). In ITER’s tokamak device (Rus: токамак – a toroidal chamber with magnetic field), the largest of its kind in the world, that plasma will be controlled by magnetic fields. During the fusion process, neutrons, which carry some 80 percent of the energy, unaffected by a magnetic field, will be absorbed by tokamak walls and transferred into the heat. As in coal plants and nuclear fission plants, the heat will be turned into steam which will subsequently be used to drive turbines, thus generating electricity via alternators.

An important chapter of this project was opened in 2010 when construction works were launched. The initial phase implies building facilities designated for the housing of the ITER machine itself and accompanying structures. ITER member manufacturing plants are supposed to deliver over one million components to the designated construction site. Last year, first large components arrived at the site, which marked the first phase of assembly activities. Construction works should be done by 2019, and the First Plasma operation is expected in 2022.