The Largest Nuclear Fusion Project Failed Before It Was Ever Turned On. ITER Will Need a Decade to Implement Changes

  • The international project had aimed to produce the first plasma in 2025, but it’s now scheduled for 2033.

  • Although construction is proceeding as planned, new deadlines and a revised budget have not yet been revealed.

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The ITER Council has officially announced that the launch of the world’s largest and most expensive nuclear fusion reactor will be delayed by a decade. There’s a new development plan, and it includes significant changes.

What is ITER? The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, or ITER, is an enormous nuclear fusion project that involves 35 of the world’s largest economies. The European Union provides 40% of the funding, while the U.S., China, India, Japan, South Korea, and Russia provide the remaining 60%.

The reactor, which is still under construction in Cadarache in southern France, is based on the tokamak design. This donut-shaped device uses a powerful magnetic field to confine hot plasma at extremely high temperatures (around 270 million degrees Fahrenheit), which makes the fusion of hydrogen nuclei possible. As a result, it releases clean and virtually unlimited energy.

ITER aims to demonstrate the integration of systems needed for large-scale nuclear fusion operations. It’ll be the world’s largest tokamak, capable of confining a plasma volume of 3,000 cubic feet in a flow of 20 feet in diameter.

A new schedule. Naturally, such an ambitious project has faced difficulties. For several years, ITER managers have known they couldn’t meet the objectives set since 2016, including deadlines and budgets. Now, they’ve decided to address these issues by making design changes and creating a new baseline plan.

The previous plan aimed to complete the reactor assembly and achieve the first plasma by 2025 with a short low-energy test. The new plan postpones this milestone to 2033, but includes a full-length test leading to a research operations phase starting in 2024.

Procurement of full magnetic power has also been delayed from 2033 to 2036, and the start of the final operation phase from 2035 to 2039.

Design changes. The new baseline plan also provides ITER managers with the necessary time to incorporate design changes to the reactor. The most significant change is the use of tungsten instead of beryllium in the first wall facing the plasma.

ITER acknowledges that using beryllium was a mistake–there’s a reason no fusion reactor uses beryllium. Switching to tungsten is more appropriate for future demonstration machines and commercial nuclear fusion devices expected to be released by 2060.

Reasons for the delay. During a recent ITER Council press conference, Pietro Barabaschi, the director-general of the ITER Organization, attributed the delay to:

  • The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the project, including staff reductions, factory closures, and delays in shipments and inspections.
  • Problems with component availability and suboptimal quality in the reactor design.
  • Internal cultural issues and an overly optimistic reactor assembly and plasma procurement schedule.

The new plan prioritizes the installation of critical components from the outset and defers plasma procurement by almost a decade. This adjustment, however, should better prepare the reactor for ITER operation.

Goals and challenges. The main goal of the ITER project is to achieve a fusion efficiency of Q≥10 at 400-second intervals.

This means that the reactor will have demonstrated its viability if it can generate 500 MW of fusion thermal power using only 50 MW to heat the plasma. In the long-term, the ITER team expects to achieve Q≥5 continuously.

Construction of the ITER complex began in 2013. The initial budget was close to €6 billion (around $6.5 billion), but the total cost is expected to exceed €22 billion (around $23.8 billion). Other estimates put the cost between $45 billion and $65 billion, making it one of the most expensive international projects in history.

Image | ITER

Related | The Launch of the Largest Nuclear Fusion Reactor on the Planet Is Being Delayed by a Decade. This Is Why

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