Landmark ITER nuclear fusion energy test a decade away


Construction of the ITER nuclear fusion project in southern France

Humanity will wait 10 years for a major trial of a different form of nuclear energy regarded as a game changer in the centuries ahead.

So far man-made nuclear energy has involved fission, the release of energy with the splitting of atoms of uranium and plutonium.

However in southern France, 35 nations including the US, Russia, Korea, Japan, China, European Union countries and India have been collaborating for 30 years to replicate on earth how energy is produced by the sun.

The process is called nuclear fusion and it’s one of the most futuristic projects in the world.

Instead of using heavy elements such as uranium, nuclear fusion involves taking common isotopes of hydrogen, the lightest element in the chemistry periodic table, and fusing them together.

The reaction involves hydrogen isotopes, deuterium and tritium, fusing into heavier helium atoms, releasing enormous amounts of energy in the process.

But replicating the way the sun releases energy on planet earth is astonishingly difficult, as it requires temperatures in the order of 150,000,000°C.

It’s a much higher temperature than is needed for the reaction to occur naturally on the sun.

Even where that temperature is achieved, the problem facing scientists has been that nuclear fusion has produced less energy than the huge amount needed to produce the reaction.

Nevertheless in southern France, an incredibly ambitious energy project called ITER (Latin for “the way”) for years has been planning to build a magnetic fusion device called a tokamak to see whether mankind can harness fusion energy with a large energy gain.

In other projects to date, the best effort was 16 MW of fusion power from an input of 24 MW in 1997, a net loss.

“At extreme temperatures, electrons are separated from nuclei and a gas becomes a plasma — the fourth state of matter after solid, liquid and gas. Fusion plasmas provide the environment in which light elements can fuse and yield energy,” ITER explains on its website.

The ITER organisation says thousands of engineers and scientists have contributed to the design of the device since the project began in 1985. It plans to produce 500 MW of fusion power from 50 MW of input.

It was hoped that the first trial might take place in around four years, but there has been concern for some time that this timetable had become unrealistic.

Last week the ITER council considered a revised timetable for the project, and set a deadline of June next year for a revise schedule.

However reports suggest there will be a delay of about six years, with the initial part of the project coming to fruition about 2025.

However things are moving with the first large components arriving this year.

In a statement released last week, the ITER council said India had completed pre-assembly and shipping of key components, the US had supplied transformers, China has completed manufacturing and testing of electrical network equipment, Russia had delivered superconductor cable, with major contributions also from Japan and South Korea.

The ITER project is now under construction in Saint-Paul-lez-Durance in the south of France.

ITER says 39 buildings and technical areas will house the ITER plant system with as many as 2300 workers involved. Manufacturing of machine and plant components had been underway since 2008 and initial construction began in 2010 on a 42 hectare site.

If the ITER projects succeeds, nuclear fusion could eventually become a major source of energy for mankind in the long-term, starting possibly in the second half of this century. Despite the massive expense of research, more than $US14bn to date, and the incredible technical difficulties involved, fusion is seen to have major advantages.

Scientists believe it will deliver up to four times the energy of fission reactors in the long-term. Instead of producing waste that is radioactive for thousands of years, its byproducts are understood to decay almost completely within 100 years, says ITER on its website.

And the nuclear reaction process is regarded as safer than fission. Whereas the meltdown of a fission reactor can lead to catastrophic amounts of radioactive material in the environment, as happened at Chernobyl in 1986, and in the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster of 2011, the more difficultly-sustained fusion reaction is simply likely to shutdown of its own accord.

However environmental groups have opposed the production of fusion energy, branding it just another form of hazardous nuclear energy.

Greenpeace wants the billions invested into fusion energy instead spent on renewables. It says that, just like fission nuclear energy, fusion brings with it issues such as the storage of nuclear waste and a further threat of nuclear weapons.

They say its production is better left to the sun, something we can massively harvest as solar energy.

Australia had not been among the countries historically involved in ITER, but it was reported in May that scientists at Australian National University were designing a way to monitor the heat that escapes during the fusion reaction.

A parliamentary committee report in 2006 said: “The Committee believes that involvement in this experimentation is simply too important for the nation to miss, even if the introduction of fusion power is indeed many decades off.

“Accordingly, the Committee recommends that Australia secure formal involvement in the ITER project.”

A body of scientists and engineers called The Australian ITER Forum has been formed to support research into controlled fusion as an energy source.