ITER nuclear fusion project delayed by at least eight more years

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Can nuclear fusion help us increase our supply of clean energy tenfold? It is difficult to answer this question definitively at this point, because the prospect of harnessing the power of the atom is still distant. It will take many years to develop a working reactor, such as the one developed in the ITER experiment.

The result of collaboration between China, South Korea, the United States, India, Japan, the European Union, the United Kingdom, Russia and Switzerland, this megaproject is currently taking the form of a gigantic construction site in the middle of the Bouches-du-Rhône. This reactor was to produce its first plasma in 2025, while the stadium “complete magnetic energy”according to Pietro Barabaschi, Director General of ITER, was to be achieved during the year 2030. Deadlines have now been pushed back.

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Several manufacturing defects

At the last meeting of the project's board of directors, Barabaschi managed to obtain an eight-year extension before the first experiments, until 2033. The next stage could be pushed back until 2036.

The bill is also expected to increase by €5 billion, an additional funding that participating countries still have to respond favourably to by the end of the year, according to internal sources reported by Science & FutureIn 2008, the cost of the project was estimated at 10 billion euros, compared to 20 to 40 billion today.

Proof that nuclear fusion reactors are not so easy to build. The ITER reactor suffers from manufacturing defects in some of its components, the main cause of delays and budget overruns. Pietro Barabaschi, however, wants to be reassuring and declared during a press conference on Wednesday, July 3: “There is a delay, but we believe we are doing what is right to achieve the final objective with more attention to risks and minimizing the total delay.”

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Atoms that are difficult to combine

Nuclear fusion, not to be confused with nuclear fission, which is the dominant technique in traditional power plants, promises to provide electricity in large quantities. Reactors such as ITER, called tokamaksmust reproduce the physics that occurs within a star by assembling very light nuclei — in this case, deuterium and tritium. To do this, the fuel is heated in a vacuum chamber to dizzying temperatures, up to 150 million degrees. And, to protect the walls of the reactor, the resulting plasma is confined by a powerful magnetic field. Quite a challenge, then.

The advantage of this technique over nuclear fission is that it presents fewer risks, because there is no risk of an uncontrolled chain reaction, as was the case at Chernobyl in 1986. In addition, nuclear fusion has the advantage of producing little radioactive waste, which addresses one of the main criticisms levelled today at the “fission” nuclear sector.

ITER could therefore provide access to a technology capable of providing cleaner energy in large quantities. However, this is only an experiment, which will have difficulty reaching the stage of energy profitability, because nuclear fusion reactors currently consume more energy than they produce. Unless there is an impromptu technological advance, we will have to wait until the beginning of the next century to really benefit from it. We can therefore give Barabaschi and his teams a few more years to do things properly.

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