Iranian sun Richard Stone | 09 Sep 2016

A fusion research program nurtured in isolation could blossom as Iran joins the ITER megaproject.

Islamic Azad University’s Chinese-made tokamak could see action as an ITER test bed. PHOTO: FARHAD BABAEI

The Damavand tokamak is an unlikely emblem of hope for Iranian science. Named after Iran’s tallest mountain, it looks like an antique bathysphere studded with metal barnacles. Its heritage is retro, too; Iran purchased the machine, which confines and heats plasma within powerful magnetic fields, from Russia in 1994, and its toroidal hull is vintage Soviet. Only the barnaclelike adornments—Iranian-made devices for probing and shaping plasma—are newer.

For more than a decade, the 110 scientists in the fusion department of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) here in north Tehran experimented on their aging tokamak and other devices in seclusion, cut off from the global fusion community because of Iran’s status as a nuclear pariah. Their isolation is about to end. In early 2017, Iran is expected to join the world’s most expensive physics experiment, ITER , a mammoth tokamak now under construction near Cadarache in southern France. The Damavand device would add to a menagerie of small tokamaks around the globe now being used as test beds for ITER, which aims to achieve the first controlled, self-sustaining fusion reaction within a decade or two, at a cost of tens of billions of dollars.

At Cadarache in France on 1 July, ITER chief Bernard Bigot (far left) briefs Iranian delegates Ali Akbar Salehi, Sorena Sattari, and Mahmood Ghoranneviss (left to right).PHOTO: ROBERT ARNOUX/ITER ORGANIZATION

ITER Director-General Bernard Bigot plans to lead a delegation here as early as next month to begin formal talks on ties that, Iranian science officials hope, will boost the nation’s fusion program and expose Iranian experts to global norms in science. An ITER partnership “will solve many cultural problems” that hinder Iran’s efforts to create a knowledge-based economy, says Sorena Sattari, Iran’s vice president for science and technology, who, with AEOI President Ali Akbar Salehi, went to Cadarache in July for informal discussions about Iran’s potential contributions.

An agreement with ITER would be the first big scientific fruit of a landmark international deal—the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)—in which Iran agreed to limits on its nuclear program in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions imposed by the United Nations and individual countries after revelations of covert nuclear facilities in 2003. It would also mark fusion research as an exception to the generally lackluster progress on the scientific cooperation envisioned in the agreement (see sidebar, p. 1085), which has been hampered by growing distrust between Iran and the United States.

A year after the deal was signed in July 2015, Iranian officials complain that the United States has not sent an emphatic signal to international banks that it is okay to do business with Iran again, delaying an expected economic bounce. And although Iran on 29 August paroled a young laser physicist, Omid Kokabee, convicted of “communicating with a hostile government” in 2012 and sentenced to 10 years in prison, U.S. officials are wringing their hands over a fresh wave of arrests of Iranian-Americans visiting family in Iran.

With the mood souring, the JCPOA’s fate hangs in the balance. “We should keep it as we keep a baby: Make sure no harm reaches the nuclear deal,” Salehi says. “Everything is at stake.” He hopes that the prospect of cooperation on fusion will help blunt domestic criticism. If the fusion ties help save the deal, decades of quiet persistence by Iranian researchers, backing from top politicians, and the influence of scientists who maintained overseas ties in Iran’s darkest times will have a very public payoff.

IRAN’S PURSUIT OF FUSION started nearly a half-century ago. In the mid-1960s, Masud Naraghi, then a young plasma physicist, was working in the United States on spaceship re-entry technologies for a NASA contractor in New York. In 1965, he and other Iranian expatriates met the last shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, at the Waldorf Astoria New York in New York City. “He told me, ‘Why don’t you come back to Iran, and help your country?’” Naraghi says. “It really affected me. I was homesick.” Naraghi, now president of Torr International in New Windsor, New York, returned to Iran and joined the faculty of Aryamehr University here, renamed Sharif University of Technology after the 1979 revolution that ousted the shah.

Pahlavi was intent on developing nuclear power in Iran, which in 1967 acquired a research fission reactor from the United States under the Atoms for Peace Program (see sidebar, p. 1086). At that time, research on fusion power was in its infancy, and Naraghi saw a chance for Iran to get in on the ground floor. He started a plasma research group in 1971, and, 4 years later, oversaw construction of Iran’s first tokamak—called Alvand—at AEOI’s nascent Tehran Nuclear Research Center. Science in Iran sputtered during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s, however, and Naraghi emigrated to the United States in 1989.

The next big boost for Iranian fusion came at a private university in the foothills of the Alborz Mountains north of here. Plasma physicist Mahmood Ghoranneviss moved to the arid aerie in 1993. At the time, he recalls, “there was no road here. Only land.” He had come to start his own plasma physics center at Islamic Azad University (IAU).

He had a powerful patron: Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the university’s founder and then-president of Iran. Rafsanjani “understood the importance of fusion for our country’s future,” Ghoranneviss says. As a sweetener to lure him from AEOI, where he had apprenticed for a decade, the university bought a small, used tokamak from China. But at first, it was difficult to staff his center. “People didn’t know what plasma is. They thought I was talking about blood.” Step by step, he says, he recruited students and assembled a team that began using the tokamak to probe plasma instabilities.

Ten years later, sanctions over Iran’s nuclear program began to bite and a cloud of suspicion descended on collaborations with Iranian nuclear scientists. Magnetic confinement fusion “has no relevance to nuclear weapons,” notes R. Scott Kemp, an expert on Iran’s nuclear program at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. But Ghoranneviss worried that his center would also fall under suspicion. He contacted the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna. “I explained, ‘I am not a government man, my university is private. Please help me.’” IAEA threw him a lifeline: In 2006, the agency brought Ghoranneviss into its Coordinated Research program for fusion, which connected him with researchers in other countries.

Through the IAEA program he met Heinrich Hora, a theoretical physicist at the University of New South Wales, Sydney, in Australia. Hora was nervous about getting involved with the sanctioned country. “I was very cautious,” he says. But he and Ghoranneviss discovered a common passion for a radical alternative to tokamaks.

Tokamaks like ITER burn deuterium and tritium, hydrogen isotopes that, when fused, spew high-energy neutrons and intense radioactivity. Hora and collaborators envisioned combining magnetic confinement with powerful laser pulses to ignite a different fuel: hydrogen and boron-11, which does not produce damaging neutrons during fusion. With George Miley, a nuclear physicist at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, they laid out the theoretical basis for the approach in Energy and Environmental Sciences in 2010, in a paper that got wide attention. Hora says calculations by one of Ghoranneviss’s students—Babak Malekynia—were “crucial and important.”

A second collaboration with a U.S. fusion effort soon blossomed. In April 2012, Voice of America ran a report on its Persian language television channel about a “fusion for peace” proposal, in which Eric Lerner, the president of LPP Fusion in Middlesex, New Jersey, and two colleagues proposed that the U.S. and Iranian governments work together. Ghoranneviss got in touch with Lerner, and a month later the two agreed to work on joint papers from studies on a kind of compact fusion machine that both IAU and LPP used: a plasma focus device that relies on a current-induced magnetic field—rather than external magnets like a tokamak—to contain tiny plasma globs. IAU dispatched a senior fusion expert, Hamid Yousefi, for stints at LPP in 2012 and 2014.

The collaboration hit a pothole in early 2013, after a website, Forbidden Knowledge TV, claimed that LPP had developed fusion “generators” and was selling six to Iran for $70,000 apiece. What Lerner calls “misinformation” caught the eye of the U.S. Department of Commerce and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which opened an inquiry. LPP was quickly cleared of any wrongdoing, Lerner says. Experiments with the plasma physics team at IAU are continuing.

NOW, GHORANNEVISS IS EMBARKING on a far grander collaboration. In February, Sattari appointed him Iran’s chief representative to ITER.

Some Iranian officials think that in starting out with a modest partnership outlined in a memorandum of understanding, Iran is aiming too low. Ghoranneviss says that Rafsanjani, still an influential politician, earlier this year suggested that Iran become a full member of ITER, coequal with China, the European Union, India, Japan, Russia, South Korea, and the United States. “He loves fusion,” Ghoranneviss says. “He said, ‘Don’t worry about money.’”

Salehi, however, says it’s too early for full membership. The cost to Iran—which he estimates at about $120 million a year—is daunting. Moreover, Salehi says, Iran is simply not ready. “We would be a weak full member. We still need to build up indigenous capacity,” both in training researchers and upgrading Iran’s aging tokamaks.

AEOI’s nuclear fusion department, for example, has been handicapped not only by Iran’s isolation, but also by security concerns. As suspicions grew that Iran may have been pursuing nuclear weapons, assassins started targeting researchers with links to Iran’s nuclear program. Over 3 years, four were slain in an effort widely thought to have been orchestrated by Israel. The government assigned security personnel to escort hundreds of scientists, including top fusion researchers, wherever they ventured in public.

Even so, AEOI’s fusion program has been building its human capital. It hosts university students, giving them experimental problems to solve on Iran’s small tokamaks. Trainees also work on AEOI’s “Iranian Sun” plasma focus. The device “is handy and cheap for studying plasma behavior,” says plasma physicist Seyed Mahmud Sadat Kiai, who with 32 AEOI co-authors wrote a 2010 paper in the Journal of Fusion Energy describing how they used the plasma focus to generate short-lived radioisotopes.

The result is a homegrown plasma physics community, a few hundred researchers and graduate students strong, ready for new collaborations in the wake of the nuclear deal. Among the JCPOA parties, France has taken the lead in reaching out to Iran on fusion; in July, six fusion experts from the Paris-based French Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission visited AEOI and IAU to explore possibilities for Iran to contribute to France’s work on ITER’s divertor , a structure that removes helium—the “ash” from fusion—from a burning plasma.

Bigot in July asked for the blessings of the ITER Council, made up of representatives of the seven full members, to pursue a relationship with Iran that would begin with work in diagnostics: defined measurements for observing and characterizing plasma. As Science went to press, Bigot says he was waiting for a final council member to weigh in; the six responses so far, including the United States’s, are positive. Provided he gets what he calls a “full green light,” Bigot will lead a team here that will assess Iran’s capacity in diagnostics.

Once the agreement is finalized, Salehi says, Iran will dispatch fusion experts for training at Cadarache and other fusion installations. If things go smoothly, Iran could negotiate associate membership in ITER, which would expand the relationship beyond diagnostics. Around 2020, perhaps with French assistance, Iran intends to build a larger tokamak, similar in scale to machines in China and South Korea. Full membership, Salehi hopes, could come around the time ITER is expected to start operating, in late 2025.

For Ghoranneviss, joining ITER is a dream come true. But the responsibility of leading Iran’s bid to help capture the sun’s energy source is weighing on him. “I cannot sleep at night. My troubles are increasing,” he says, with a smile. After decades of adversity, they are welcome troubles.