Interest in nuclear fusion has risen immensely

Die Welt 10.04.2017

The experimental reactor Iter is intended to solve mankind’s energy problems. According to Director General Bernard Bigot more and more countries want to join. But they all share one concern.

Nuclear fusion reactors could solve mankind’s energy problems as it is clean and safe. Yet the big problem is that so far the reactors need more energy to work than they produce. It’s very challenging to build a reactor that can be used for large-scale power generation. But still this is the goal, and in order to achieve it the EU, the US, Russia, China, South Korea and India finance the international project Iter in the research centre Cadarache in South France. It’s a great example for global cooperation in order to solve one of the biggest problems of mankind. For years the project hardly progessed though. But since Bernard Bigot, fomer director of the French Commission of Atomic Energy, took over as head of the project, it’s moving on quickly. But it is exactly now that political conflicts endanger the project.

Die Welt: Mr. Bigot, Iter is the largest project of the international community. But at the moment it seems as if nations are drifting apart. Will the Iter project survive Brexit and Trump?

Bernard Bigot: I have received a provisional pledge from the British government that they want to stay on the Iter project. And they have also made a clear statement in the Brexit document. It is not at all compulsory that Brexit must also mean the complete withdrawal from Euratom, in which the European Iter partners are organized. And withdrawal from Euratom would not necessarily mean withdrawal from Iter. The British fusion organizations and scientists are eager to continue their contribution to Iter through collaboration with Fusion for Energy, the EU body managing Europe’s contribution to Iter, and the Eurofusion research collaboration. All of these aspects will have to be negotiated.

Die Welt: Do you hear the same from the US?

Bigot: I visited the US after the inauguration of President Trump, and I spoke with Congressmen, the Department of Energy and the State Department. There are clearly uncertainties. My expectation is that every nation defends its own interests, whatever they may be. And the US wants to know if fusion technology works. Even though they have plenty of gas, oil and space for windmills and solar fields. It is the country that burns the most energy resources in the world. The Americans know that their current way of meeting the energy demand cannot last forever.

Die Welt: The US president is not exactly a friend of international cooperation.

Bigot: I hear that the US president has nothing against international cooperation as long as it is a good deal for the US.

Die Welt: And is that so? The experimental reactor is being built in the South of France. And Europe accounts for 45 percent of the project.

Bigot: That’s why it’s in fact a very good deal for Mr Trump. The US is paying only nine percent of the costs, but has access to 100 percent of the research results. In addition, the USA has conducted outstanding research into fusion technology and has already built its own plants. If it withdrew from the Iter project, the US would have to pursue this technology alone. Because none of today’s Iter partners would be likely to cooperate with them.

Die Welt: You might get over losing a financial share of 9 per cent. But could Iter do without the technical input of the US?

Bernard Bigot is the head of the ITER project since 2015
Quelle: AFP/Getty Images

Bigot: It would be very difficult to do without the US expertise. The Central Solenoid, for example, the most powerful magnet in the world, consists of 1000 tonnes of superconducting material. These are not static, but dynamic coils, in which the magnetic field constantly moves up and down. This requires a great deal of expertise, and the US companies are able to deliver it. The same applies to Iter’s fuel recycling, that is, the renewal of used tritium and deuterium. The US is the best in doing that. It would take us very long to recover from a potential American retreat. That is why it is so important for me that each of the seven Iter members, not just the USA, feel that we are now serious about delivering.

Die Welt: And, can you deliver? Within the research community, they still tell the old joke about the “fusion constant”: According to this, the first fusion reactor is always ready “in 40 to 50 years from now” – no matter when you ask.

Bigot: That was before I started here. I have committed myself to deliver the first plasma within the budget in 2025. The schedule is fixed. In April 2016, 14 independent experts with special experience in the management of major projects have certified that we are relying on the best and most realistic schedule and planning.

Die Welt: Before you took office, the US and other important partners were still considering stepping out of the project. The costs exploded, the work did not progress. What had happened?

Bigot: My predecessor had not made it clear enough that Iter is not just a research project, but an industrial one. As a researcher you gather all opinions, try to please everyone. But here you have to make decisions. I therefore accepted the office only on the basis that the Director-General has full decision-making powers. The seven Iter Member States have understood that this is the only way forward. This was a turning point. I got full power of authority, full authority over the staff, and I got a special fund of one billion euros that gives me the freedom to make decisions quickly. It relieves me of the obligation to apply for new financial resources for every new problem with all seven members.

Die Welt: You are managing high-ranking scientists and engineers from seven very self-confident research nations with a rigid hand? Can you give us an example, please?

Bigot: There was, for example, dispute over the question of where the pipes should be installed to dissipate the heat, inside or outside the Bio-Shield. There is no definite solution. The advantages and disadvantages of each variant had been discussed for years. When I then took over the project, I made it clear that I would listen to the arguments of the engineers, but that I would then in two months take the decision – irrevocably. It might not be the perfect decision. But it would be the decision that allows us to advance. And so it was done.

Die Welt: However, the budget and the schedule had to be corrected under your auspices.

Bigot: When I arrived, there was something like a political schedule and budget: in 2007 the governments had given the project a construction time-span of about 12 years. The first plasma was to burn in 2020 because it sounded like a round number. But nobody had checked whether this goal was achievable at all. So I reviewed the schedule. The result was: No chance for a first plasma before 2025. Meaning there would be a delay of five years, and this delay naturally entails additional costs of 4.1 billion euros. With this upper limit, however, we now have clarity. And there has been a change in culture: there is no more muddling, as is often the case in research funding: We must now deliver – on time and within the budget.

Die Welt: And if the sun fire does not burn in 2025, would that then mean: Huge expense, no recompense?

Bigot: Over the past 60 years, many fusion projects have shown that controlled fusion is possible. In Germany there is the IPP in Munich and Wendelstein 7-X in Greifswald, which has performed very well since its start. So we have accumulated a lot of knowledge. Now the goal is to heat up a plasma to such an extent that it generates more energy than is needed for its heat generation. This unfortunately depends on the machine’s size. In the sun, fusion works because it has 300,000 times the Earth’s mass. The latest research results from our partners make me more and more confident that this process will also work on Earth.

A cut-away view of the Iter Tokamak
Quelle: ITER IO

Die Welt: What results make you feel so confident?

Bigot: At the end of last year, KSTAR in South Korea succeeded in keeping superhot plasma stable over 70 seconds. And this happened in a fusion reactor of the Tokamak type, the same we are building here. The latest results of the fusion reactor JET in Culham in the UK and in the German machines Asdex Upgradein Munich and Wendelstein X7 in Greifswald also indicate that we can indeed well control the plasma. China is already preparing the construction of a first real fusion power plant, in parallel to Iter, and is already developing cables that can transport 80,000 amperes. There are many signs that progress is advancing. And it is no coincidence that the international interest in an Iter membership is increasing.

Die Welt: So in addition to the seven leading research communities there are others who want to participate in this expensive experiment with an uncertain outcome?

Bigot: Since we have started pouring concrete here in Cadarache, and since the buildings are growing out of the ground and machine parts are being assembled, the interest has risen immensely. If you had come here six years ago, you would have seen only an empty field out there. Now people realize that something very interesting is happening here. They see it on our website, they see it when they visit the construction site. And they remember: Look, that indeed is serious. Meanwhile, a number of countries are thinking about membership.

Die Welt: With whom do you speak exactly?

Bigot: We recently signed an agreement with Australia on a limited membership. The Australian Parliament agrees to invest a few million dollars a year to train their people here and prepare a possible membership. Some other nations are also open to this idea, for example, Kazakhstan, which has intensively conducted its own fusion research in Soviet times. Iran has also recently asked to be an associate member. The possibility of accession is now open for ten years, the government has buttressed the deal with quite a bit of money. Because of the geopolitical situation, the talks with Iran are on hold until we have clarity on the policies of US President Trump.

Die Welt: Can a Fusion Reactor really provide cheap energy, as all these countries hope? The technical expenditure is, for the time being, gigantic.

Bigot: In the case of a future fusion power plant, capital costs would initially be large, but the operating costs can then be very low. For the energy comes from the plasma which is held by a magnetic field. This is static, there is no mechanical movement that could cause wear. These magnet coils can last forever. Over the lifespan of the plant I expect competitive energy prices. Our fuels deuterium and tritium are clean, safe, economical and abundant.

Die Welt: Nevertheless, the Green Party in Germany considers Iter as superfluous. We are currently expanding the renewable energies.

Bigot: I love this dream. It is wonderful. Mankind was dependent on renewable energies for centuries. But there are two setbacks: First, the energy density of wind and solar energy is not very high. Secondly, renewable energies exist only intermittently. Even though we have made tremendous progress in technological development, these boundaries remain. Every country, including Germany, which has a lot of urbanization and a lot of industry needs a steady, reliable power supply. In order to contribute to renewable energies, you need a back-up source that is continuous, predictable and productive. This role could be taken over by fusion reactors in the future.

Since construction on the Iter Site is progressing more and more countries are willing to join the project
Quelle: Fusion for Energy

Die Welt: It is hoped that the volatility of the wind and solar power will somehow be managed by electricity storage.

Bigot: I am a chemist and a physicist. I like these technologies, but I also know their limits. In Germany today you have a huge amount of solar current between eleven o’clock in the morning and 5 o’clock in the evening, of which one does not know what to do with it and which one must give away. All this works at present only because France’s nuclear power plants and the pumped storage power plants of Austria and Switzerland are available as backups. But if each country only had renewable energies, that would mean a dead end street. Also, in Germany there are long phases almost without any wind or solar power. I thus believe we need both: the development of renewable energies and backup power plants that deliver electricity steadily and predictably. Fusion is not the only one but a very promising option. Because fusion is clean, safe, and independent of regionally concentrated resources. Proving the feasibility of fusion as a large-scale energy source would be a real breakthrough for the world.