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

  • Initially, the ITER project was scheduled to start plasma experiments in 2025.

  • Now, the new plans are to begin reactor operation in 2035.

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The ITER (International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor) project was planned in 2006 and officially started in 2007, although the assembly of the nuclear fusion reactor began in 2020. EUROfusion, the institution responsible for promoting and supporting the scientific research for the European nuclear fusion plan, proposed an initial schedule that aimed for the assembly to be completed by 2025.

ITER engineers also planned to begin the first plasma tests in 2025, followed by low-power tests with hydrogen and helium in 2028 and high-power experiments with these gases in 2032. Finally, by 2035, the idea was that they’d be ready to perform high-power tests with deuterium and tritium. The goal was for ITER to demonstrate the energy profitability of nuclear fusion by 2040. Unfortunately, however, this won’t happen.

First Plasma Tests to Be Performed in 2035

In February 2022, the project faced its first major setback when the French Nuclear Safety Authority (ASN) found some technical irregularities in the reactor’s vacuum chamber sectors. As a response, the ITER Organization formed a working group to address ASN’s requests and continue with the assembly of the tokamak reactor. Towards the end of April that year, ITER managers submitted their technical proposal to ASN and the assembly of the reactor progressed as usual.

The vacuum vessel weighs 8,000 tons, and its assembly has forced the engineers to deal with extraordinarily tight local tolerances of 0.1%.

Building a complex machine like ITER is no easy task. The 8,000-ton vacuum vessel, made of stainless steel and boron, requires a hermetic seal and poses challenges due to its extraordinarily tight local tolerances of 0.1%. Additionally, the chamber has a complex shape and uses formed plates up to 2.5 inches thick, requiring engineers to utilize cutting-edge technologies such as electron beam welding and AI models to detect defects in the chamber welds.

In 2022, ITER managers expected that the proposed schedule for the experimental nuclear fusion reactor would need adjustments. More recently, they confirmed those changes in a meeting attended by representatives from all contributing countries and fusion energy experts involved in the project. As we mentioned before, the reactor’s operation and first plasma tests are now scheduled for 2035, a decade later than initially planned.

ITER officials attribute the delay to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 and 2021, along with technical challenges posed by unprecedented components that require fine-tuning to complete the project. On Wednesday Pietro Barabaschi, the director-general of the ITER Organization, will disclose all the details about the revised schedule for what many expect to be the most advanced experimental nuclear fusion reactor using magnetic confinement. Hopefully, the new dates will be met, and the project will finally succeed.

Image | ITER

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