ITER in jeopardy

Europe’s fusion researchers have ‘deplored’ the continued delay in deciding where to build the world’s first commercial-scale reactor.

Europe’s fusion researchers have ‘deplored’ the continued delay in deciding where to build the world’s first commercial-scale reactor, and warned that the deadlock poses a serious risk to the future of the project.

Engineers and physicists associated with the Joint European Torus (JET), Europe’s own experimental fusion reactor at Culham, Oxfordshire, said last week that protracted disagreement over where to build the much larger International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) could cause a loss of political confidence in fusion power.

Senior members of the European fusion research community fear that unless a decision is made soon, the international partnership behind ITER could fall apart and plans to take the next step towards fusion power, the Holy Grail of electricity generation, will have to be shelved.

Nuclear fusion offers the energy-hungry world the possibility of an abundant and relatively clean source of electrical power. JET, which celebrated its 25th anniversary last week, has helped to prepare the ground for ITER by proving that it is possible to create fusion; it has tested the tritium and deuterium fuel and other materials that will be used in ITER and helped to establish how a larger-scale fusion plant could be operated.

The next step to achieving a sustained fusion reaction can only be achieved by building ITER. The plan is for a 500W reactor capable of producing 10 times more energy than is required to achieve fusion.While the technology is ready, the six international ITER partners are split evenly on where it should be built. Europe, Russia and China favour a site in France, while the Japanese government, the US and South Korea are backing a site in northern Japan.

The decision was due to have been made at the end of last year, and in a speech to a gathering at Culham last week in celebration of JET, Philippe Busquin, the EU’s research commissioner, said he believed the issue would be resolved by the end of the summer. There is the potential for compromise over the sharing out of other parts of the ITER project, such as the International Fusion Material Irradiation Facility.

However, Dr. Paul-Henri Rebut, who led the JET design team, told the gathering at Culham that it is essential agreement is found soon. ‘We must deplore the time that has been wasted,’ he said. The deadlock was depleting the numbers of those who had the experience to build and operate ITER, he said, and he warned that if the project was awarded to Japan Europe should disengage and pursue a separate course of research. ‘If ITER goes to Japan, Europe must build a successor to JET,’ he said.

While the official line is that the decision process is back on track and ITER will eventually be built, many senior figures in the European fusion community fear the delay could result in a loss of political will at the highest level, which could see the entire enterprise fail.One senior figure who did not wish to be identified said the ITER decision was now entirely political. It had taken many years to gather the political will together to bring fusion power to the point it is at today. He said that a number of people now believe there is a strong prospect that the longer the delay continues, the political will behind it could ‘drain away’.

It is also feared that some partners could start to leave the project, such as the US which has left and rejoined once before. ‘That would be a disaster. A decision was due in December. Since then we have made no progress. That is not only deplorable but risky.’

Last week a sustained plea was made for ITER to be built in Europe. In a series of presentations a string of JET luminaries stressed ITER’s dependence on the progress made by JET over the past 25 years, and by implication made it clear that Europe was where fusion research should continue.

JET is the most successful fusion reactor to date, holding the world record for fusion power production. Not only is ITER’s tokamak design modelled on JET, but the facility has been used uniquely to test the use of ITER’s tritium fuel; heating and diagnostic prototypes for ITER; and the exploration of advanced regimes for operating to achieve improved performance and long pulse capability. And specialised remote handling techniques have been developed at JET which will be essential for the operation of ITER.

‘Without JET where would ITER be?’ said Prof. Francis Troyon, former president of the JET council. ‘JET proves Europe can construct a highly challenging scientific device on time and to budget.’ Dr. Jerome Paméla, associate leader of JET, said the facility would play a role throughout the ITER construction period. ‘JET offers unmatched capabilities to prepare for ITER. In the long term it could be used to limit the faults on ITER’s construction.’

The JET reactor is entering a shut-down phase during which it will be fitted with more powerful plasma heating equipment. The ICHR antenna, which will also be used in ITER, will assist in delivering more than 30MW of heat energy to the JET fusion process.