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Page added on December 20, 2017

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ITER Nuclear Fusion Plant Is Halfway Finished

ITER Nuclear Fusion Plant Is Halfway Finished thumbnail
The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor plant in Saint-Paul-Lez-Durance, France, is 50 percent complete. ANNE-CHRISTINE POUJOULAT/Getty Images
The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor plant in Saint-Paul-Lez-Durance, France, is 50 percent complete. ANNE-CHRISTINE POUJOULAT/Getty Images

The sprawling landscape of construction cranes and partially completed buildings, along with a massive metal-and-steel ring, was described as looking like a “modern-day Stonehenge” by The New York Times in March 2017. It’s been a decade since construction began on the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor plant, known as ITER. The project, which involves 35 nations including the U.S., aims to demonstrate that nuclear fusion — the combining of hydrogen isotopes to form helium, the same process by which stars generate light and heat — could be a viable future source of power generation for an energy-hungry world.

The project has been dogged by delays and seen its projected cost nearly quadruple over the years to 18 billion euros ($22 billion), and even a 2016 U.S. Department of Energy report supporting the project expressed uncertainty about whether it ultimately will be successful. In early December 2017, ITER officials announced that they had reached an important milestone, by completing 50 percent of the total construction work needed to reach “First Plasma.” That initial stage of operation, in which hydrogen will be turned into a hot, electrically-charged gas, currently is scheduled to occur in 2025. (It will take another decade of work after that for ITER to generate energy.)

“When we prove that fusion is a viable energy source, it will eventually replace burning fossil fuels, which are non-renewable and non-sustainable,” Bernard Bigot, ITER’s director general, explained in a statement on the project’s website. “Fusion will be complementary with wind, solar, and other renewable energies. … By demonstrating the feasibility of fusion as a clean, safe, and nearly limitless source of energy, we can leave a strong legacy for future generations.”

In an email, Columbia University professor Gerald A. Navratil, a leading fusion energy researcher whose work influenced ITER’s design, describes the construction milestone as a “significant event in the development of practical fusion energy.”

ITER will contain the world’s largest tokamak, a magnetic device first developed by Soviet researchers in the late 1960s, which essentially simulates the intense heat and pressure inside the internal furnace of a star. According to an explanation on the ITER website, the device uses a powerful electrical current to break down hydrogen gas, stripping away electrons from the nuclei to form plasma — a hot, electrically-charged gas. As the plasma particles become energized and collide, they heat up, eventually reaching a temperature between 100 and 300 million degrees Celsius (about 180 million to 360 million degrees Fahrenheit). At that point, the hydrogen nuclei are so energized that they can overcome their natural tendency to repel one another, so that they can fuse to form helium. In the process, they release enormous amounts of energy.

As this article from World Nuclear Association details, experimental tokamaks have been generating energy for decades. But so far, they’ve required more energy to operate than the fusion generates. But ITER hopes to overcome that limitation, in part, with sheer size. The March 2017 New York Times article on the project describes the tokamak as standing 100 feet (30.5 meters) tall and stretching another 100 feet in diameter, and a description on the ITER website says it will weigh more than 25,000 pounds (23 metric tons), with a volume of 30,000 cubic feet (840 cubic meters). That’s 10 times the capacity of any previous device.

Bigger Is Definitely Better

As the ITER website explains, a bigger device with more volume creates more potential for fusion reactions, upping the energy output and making the device more efficient. If it works as planned when it’s fully operational in 2035, ITER will use 50 megawatts of power input to generate 500 megawatts of fusion energy, in the form of heat. While ITER won’t use that energy to generate electricity, it’s intended to pave the way for future generations of fusion power plants that would.

A reactor being built at the site in southern France.
A reactor being built at the site in southern France.
BORIS HORVAT/Getty Images

“The design of the ITER experiment is based on a conservative extrapolation of the fusion performance from our existing fusion devices,” Navratil writes in his email. “There is confidence that the size and magnetic field strength of ITER will allow us to achieve its goal of producing 500 megawatts of fusion power with 50 megawatts of power input into the plasma. Since ITER is an experiment producing for the first time a strongly fusion self-heated plasma, we will use these results to confirm our understanding of the burning plasma state, and could discover some important new plasma physics phenomena. The information we obtain from ITER will provide the basis to confidently design the core of the next step in fusion energy development, which would aim to produce net electricity and set the stage for commercial deployment of fusion energy systems.”

Advantages Over Nuclear Power

According to an ITER press release, fusion power plants eventually would be comparable in cost to conventional nuclear power plants. But unlike power plants, fusion plants wouldn’t produce radioactive waste, along with the costly problem of what to do with it. Fusion also would have a big advantage over fossil fuels, in that it wouldn’t pump massive amounts of carbon dioxide and other pollution into the atmosphere and contribute to climate change.

And as Navratil notes, fusion could have some advantages over low-carbon renewable energy sources as well.

“If successful, fusion power plants based on the fusion plasma performance in ITER would provide a carbon-free source of continuous electrical energy output without the drawbacks of wind and solar power systems, which produce electricity for only a part of the day and need energy storage or ‘back-up’ power systems to support a stable electrical power grid,” Navratil explains. “Given the many trillions of dollars involved in our energy system infrastructure, the availability of such a fusion power source later in this century will be a very important addition to our sources of carbon-free electrical power.”

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26 Comments on "ITER Nuclear Fusion Plant Is Halfway Finished"

  1. deadlykillerbeaz on Wed, 20th Dec 2017 8:12 am 

    I hope it works, 17 years to go is a long time. Good to know what’s happening.

    Better than having more nuclear waste piling up higher than the sky.

    360,000,000 degrees Fahrenheit is cool, no doubt.

  2. twocats on Wed, 20th Dec 2017 8:14 am 

    Did the NY Times or the author of this article have any hint of irony when mentioning Stonehenge? I’m not sure which I believe has more merit: ITER or Leylines.

    I forget – what’s half of infinity?

  3. Denial on Wed, 20th Dec 2017 9:06 am 

    why is thorium not an option? I don’t think this will work…..I think we are already seeing cracks in our system………

  4. Duncan Idaho on Wed, 20th Dec 2017 9:55 am 

    I don’t think this will work….

    Nothing has come even close.
    Thorium? No working system in existence– that is not a composite for a trial.
    It does have theoretical possibilities, its just way too late to the game.

  5. Sissyfuss on Wed, 20th Dec 2017 11:22 am 

    Twokitties, half of infinity is equal to Trumps first term.

  6. vegeholic on Wed, 20th Dec 2017 12:59 pm 

    When conceived as a tool to prop up BAU the whole enterprise seems myopically misguided. I am sure the science and engineering necessary to make this work are impressive, but in the service of endless growth it cannot succeed. Could it succeed as a component of a steady-state model with many fewer people? Seems doubtful but I am willing to support the effort while simultaneously advocating for bringing consumption in line with long-term resource availability.

  7. Antius on Wed, 20th Dec 2017 1:02 pm 

    “I don’t think this will work….

    Nothing has come even close.
    Thorium? No working system in existence– that is not a composite for a trial.
    It does have theoretical possibilities, its just way too late to the game.”

    Exactly so. We would need to build thousands of large reactors in just a few decades. There simply isn’t enough spare fossil fuel energy left to ramp production up at anything like the requisite scale before we hit the coming depression.

    And even if we magically could, providing humanity with another abundant energy source would only allow it to draw down other resources even faster and damage the planet further. We need fewer people. No other solution makes any sense at this point.

  8. Danlxyz on Wed, 20th Dec 2017 2:21 pm 

    If nothing else, ITER looks to have been very good for the steel industry.

  9. Jerome Purtzer on Wed, 20th Dec 2017 2:21 pm 

    Why build a fusion reactor on Earth when the perfect fusion reactor exists at a nice safe distance from the Earth? We just need to perfect the methods of harvesting that energy for our electrical needs.

  10. Antius on Wed, 20th Dec 2017 6:13 pm 

    “Why build a fusion reactor on Earth when the perfect fusion reactor exists at a nice safe distance from the Earth? We just need to perfect the methods of harvesting that energy for our electrical needs.”

    To answer your question – poor power density, intermittent and uncontrollable power output. A working fusion reactor would be substantially superior to solar panels because it is one power plant instead of 2.5.

  11. Makati1 on Wed, 20th Dec 2017 6:40 pm 

    “ITER Nuclear Fusion Plant Is Halfway Finished”

    Translation: “Keep sending money so all of us overpaid “scientists” can live our good life and retire, just 10 years BEFORE fusion is practical.”

    SUCKERS!

  12. Aspera on Wed, 20th Dec 2017 11:57 pm 

    “To answer your question – poor power density, intermittent and uncontrollable power output.”

    True enough challenges. To survive a bit longer (giving us some time to work on reducing the population) we must acknowledge and respond to these challenges. But, even an extremely effective response does not make them go away. A useful response does not alter but rather accommodates reality.

    This is adaptation in its classic usage: to recast or change behavior patterns into new
    forms so as to fit the new situation.

    Many people think adaptation is an entirely different thing. Something more like changing things “out there” so that we don’t have to change our own behavior.

    (NB Not sure why folks get all upset about intermittency. Anyone who farms/gardens, eats local and in season, forages, or dries their clothing outside on a line gets the idea. My grandmother got the idea just fine. But then her supply chain was local and she knew how to do stuff…)

  13. JH Wyoming on Thu, 21st Dec 2017 12:05 am 

    Isn’t it true that most systems as they get better developed can be made smaller? So if they are so far along with fusion, why does this have to be so much bigger? Makes me wonder if they have something wrong.

  14. MASTERMIND on Thu, 21st Dec 2017 12:09 am 

    Nuclear fusion has a very nice future ahead. And it always will have.

    – Dennis Meadows

  15. JH Wyoming on Thu, 21st Dec 2017 12:17 am 

    It also makes me wonder about the timing. It’s possible that before they ever light the candle, worldwide economic contraction will have ensued due to dwindling resources or some other metric and the project will be mothballed.

    In fifty thousand years or more from now archeologists will dig up this partially completed reactor and wonder why they were building it far larger than needed, because at that later point in time fusion reactors will be 1/50th the scale.

    It will be similar to the scene at the end of that Twilight Zone episode in which that last survivor of a failed caper (in which they live a hundred years in a suspended state in a cave) has died in the desert holding the last of the stolen gold, and a woman and a man of the future drive up and wonder what he’s doing with that gold.

    She says to her husband, “Wasn’t it worth something at one time, I mean before we started manufacturing it?”

  16. peakyeast on Thu, 21st Dec 2017 5:17 am 

    Its not really a solution if you are dead before its solved.

    But I suppose world-grade scientists cant be troubled with such tiny details.

  17. Antius on Thu, 21st Dec 2017 6:04 am 

    Aspera wrote: “(NB Not sure why folks get all upset about intermittency. Anyone who farms/gardens, eats local and in season, forages, or dries their clothing outside on a line gets the idea. My grandmother got the idea just fine. But then her supply chain was local and she knew how to do stuff…)”

    Well, yes. In a 100% renewable energy economy that is exactly how things would need to work. Electricity storage is too expensive to do more than cover short term fluctuations. But if we can adapt to using power when it is there and curtailing consumption when it is not, the whole proposition becomes much more practicable.

    One way to do it would be variable electricity price contracts. When power is abundant, purchase price is low. When power is short (not enough sun / wind vs demand) price would be much higher, because power would then need to come from storage or back-up. Customers could check both spot price and predicted price on the internet and plan activities accordingly. Swing loads like electrical heaters and heat pumps could be directly tied in to the internet, and could be set to trigger at specific power price. Loads requiring power for a set cycle time when started will need to be activated when both spot price and predicted price for the period ahead make them economically productive for that period.

    At present, all renewable energy on the grid must have 100% back-up with fossil fuel power plant to achieve reliability of supply. As the economy gradually adapted to intermittent supply, as renewable energy is added to the grid, the proportion of back-up could be allowed to gradually fall. There will be some applications where a baseload supply is preferable or essential, for which back-up or storage must be maintained. I do not know what proportion of electricity demand will ultimately fall into that category. But if half of present electricity demand can adapt to a variable supply with only minor economic impact, then the cost of switching to a 100% renewable electricity system might only be marginally greater than new generation coal or nuclear, rather than 3 times greater. The big question is whether that can be done without imposing intolerable burdens on users of electricity.

    Well, yes. In a 100% renewable energy economy that is exactly how things would need to work. Energy storage is too expensive to do more than cover short term fluctuations.

  18. dave thompson on Thu, 21st Dec 2017 11:15 am 

    How many of these things would need to be built in order to make any difference in the grand scheme of things? It looks to me that the overall out look points towards never being enough.

  19. Aspera on Thu, 21st Dec 2017 2:59 pm 

    “The big question is whether that can be done without imposing intolerable burdens on users of electricity.”

    Of course, this statement contains the huge assumption that we’re talking about the voluntary acceptance of low power density, intermittency, etc.

    If we accept that the future will be an inevitable, persistent, although perhaps occasionally punctuated, energy and resource descent, then we will face involuntary behavior change. Notions like worrying about “intolerable burdens on users” will seem trite.

    Let go or be dragged.

  20. GregT on Thu, 21st Dec 2017 3:26 pm 

    “Let go or be dragged.”

    I see skid marks. Lots of skid marks.

  21. Anonymouse1 on Thu, 21st Dec 2017 8:27 pm 

    Nuclear fusion(lol) – too expensive too meter.

  22. Sissyfuss on Fri, 22nd Dec 2017 8:58 am 

    I see one of the largest problems with intermittency is providing consistent power for refrigeration. When the wind doesn’t blow or the sun is feeling shy then it will give a whole new meaning to the term going green when applied to that steak sitting in the fridge.

  23. Aspera on Fri, 22nd Dec 2017 10:08 am 

    I’ve heard, but can’t confirm with a link, that manufacturers have solved the problem of refrigeration for countries with power system intermittency. I’m told they add a large thermal mass to an otherwise smaller box (i.e., smaller than that found in the USA).

    “If it exists, it’s possible.” K. Boulding

  24. fmr-paultard on Fri, 22nd Dec 2017 10:20 am 

    the only need for refrigeration is for offering of ice cream in ceremonial occasions in the celebration of supertards, in supertard religion. we all know living things need water to reproduce so drying food would take care a lot of problems. if individuals don’t have time to do it then stores will.

  25. Cloggie on Fri, 22nd Dec 2017 12:48 pm 

    “I see one of the largest problems with intermittency is providing consistent power for refrigeration. When the wind doesn’t blow or the sun is feeling shy then it will give a whole new meaning to the term going green when applied to that steak sitting in the fridge.”

    Unless your post was intended to prepare for a quip, perhaps you would want to watch these videos regarding the possibilities of storage. Your life will never be the same.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eku0GuSKiIc

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=80qCNwXu-j4

  26. Cloggie on Sat, 23rd Dec 2017 4:15 am 

    Since I’m not of British extraction, I’m not into betting. Having said that I would be willing to invest a token 5 euro into betting 60-40 that eventually fusion will work and that in 100 years time we can take down all these wind turbines and solar panels littering the land- and sea-scape in the coming century.

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