Fusion megaproject confirms 5-year delay, trims costs

Science Magazine Daniel Clery | Jun. 16, 2016

Construction of ITER’s central tokamak area is in full swing; first fusion is now set for 2025. © ITER Organization

The ITER fusion reactor will fire up for the first time in December 2025, the €18-billion project’s governing council confirmed today. The date for “first plasma” is 5 years later than under the old schedule, and to get there the council is asking the project partners—China, the European Union, India, Japan, Russia, South Korea, and the United States—to cough up an extra €4 billion ($4.5 billion).

“It is expected, if there are no objections, that we can approve [the schedule] by November and then we can move forward,” says ITER director general Bernard Bigot.

ITER aims to show that it is feasible to fuse hydrogen nuclei together to form helium and thereby release enough excess energy to make a viable source of power. To achieve that requires heating two hydrogen isotopes—deuterium (D) and tritium (T)—to temperatures above 100 million degrees Celsius. ITER will feature an enormous vessel to contain the D-T plasma, powerful superconducting magnets to confine it, and elaborate particle accelerators and microwave generators to heat it.

The international consortium that is building the reactor has parceled out the construction work to hundreds of companies across the globe. But the sheer complexity of the effort has led to delays and cost increases as researchers sought to finalize the design, maintain standards, and get the million-plus components delivered on time to the reactor site at Cadarache, France.

Bigot was brought on in March 2015 to get the project back on track. He presented a revised schedule to the council last November, pushing back the first plasma from 2020 to 2025 and asking for an additional €4.6 billion for staff and equipment. The council asked an independent panel to review the schedule and asked ITER management to cut costs. The panel declared in April that the 2025 goal is technically feasible but warned that there was no slack in case of unexpected problems.

The council meeting yesterday and today rubberstamped the 2025 target and accepted a price tag of slightly under €4 billion, down by €600 million. Managers shaved off some of the cost of reaching first plasma by delaying the construction of some components—ones that aren’t needed for early experiments—until later dates. ITER staff is now working on a staged approach in which a few years of experiments are followed by upgrades, then more experiments and more upgrades, and so on. Early studies will use only hydrogen or deuterium for simplicity, leaving the radioactive tritium for later.

That may end up delaying the first D-T experiments and increasing the overall cost, but “it reduces annual cost for the partners and it was supported by all of them,” Bigot says. “They all feel more comfortable and there is no rush.” The partners have agreed to the approach in principle while management works out the schedule in more detail. The final decision will be made at the next council meeting in November.

The council also approved a boost in staff by 350 to 1050 and the domestic agencies—bodies in each partner that handle the industrial contracts to build components—will contribute 100 more. The council also agreed to a proposal from the United States for more regular independent reviews of key project aspects, because of considerable opposition to ITER in U.S. Congress. Bigot says these may occur every 6 months and will be tightly focused, covering topics such as the project’s risk assessment and mitigation strategy or whether production of a critical component is moving fast enough.

With agreement coming together on the schedule and cost, “the atmosphere is much more positive now compared with a year ago,” Bigot says. “There is a common will to make this project a success.”