Nuclear fusion’s clean energy dream meets budget reality — and San Diego’s General Atomics sweats it out

San Diego Union Tribune Rob Nikolewski | Feb. 2, 2018

Using nuclear fusion as a virtually unlimited source of energy has been a thrilling yet distant dream for more than six decades.

An expensive and incredibly complicated international project to determine if the fantasy can become reality is finally taking shape — and San Diego’s General Atomics is in the midst of constructing what may be the single most important portion of the program.

The project is called ITER, pronounced “EAT-er,” short for the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor. General Atomics is building an incredibly powerful magnet called the Central Solenoid that will be inserted into the middle of the ITER device.

“It’s probably the world’s largest and most complex science experiment ever undertaken,” said John Smith, the program manager at General Atomics overseeing the solenoid’s development.

But the overall ITER project has been plagued with delays and has run way over budget.

And even if successful, ITER will not directly result in the construction of a commercially viable power plant. Instead, the entire point of the project is to determine if fusion can theoretically become the awesome source of power its advocates say it can be.

In many ways, ITER is a multi-billion dollar physics gamble. And there is no guarantee the project will work.

The United States is one of seven international partners in ITER and is responsible for 9 percent of the project’s costs.

The U.S. contribution has been estimated at about $4 billion, a figure that has caused some lawmakers on both sides of the political aisle on Capitol Hill to worry that the dollars devoted to ITER are squeezing out funding that could go to other areas of energy research.

With the Congress and the Trump administration preparing to hammer out a budget, funding for ITER is in jeopardy.

What that means for the construction underway at General Atomics is unclear but last month a committee from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine released a report warning any decision by the U.S. to withdraw from ITER “could isolate U.S. fusion scientists from the international effort.”

What fusion energy means

Nuclear fusion is different than its cousin, nuclear fission. Fission splits the nuclei of atoms to create power. It’s the process used in nuclear power plants like the now-shuttered San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station.

Fusion, on the other hand, replicates the same energy source as the sun and stars, causing hydrogen nuclei to collide and fuse into helium atoms, releasing tremendous amounts of energy. Fusion technology was key in the development of the hydrogen bomb.

If harnessed for energy purposes, scientists believe fusion could become a source of safe, non-carbon emitting and virtually inexhaustible energy.

“The beauty of fusion power is that the fuel is limitless,” Smith said. “It could supply earth with electricity for thousands of years.”

However, a running joke is that fusion reactors are always 30 years away. Although fusion power has been generated for short periods in the laboratory, scientists have wrestled with ways to develop commercial applications for more than six decades.

What exactly is ITER?

The ITER project aims to accelerate the practical applications of fusion at warp speed.

But it will require a remarkable level of coordination — involving not just technological innovation but international cooperation.

There are seven partners in the ITER project — the European Union, the U.S., Russia, China, South Korea, Japan and India. The EU has a 45 percent stake in ITER, with the other six countries contributing 9.1 percent each.

Each country will contribute physical portions of the ITER facility, which is being constructed in the town of Cadarache, France.

Construction site in Cadarache, France for the ITER project. (Image from ITER website)

At the center of ITER is a doughnut-shaped fusion reactor called a tokamak — an acronym dubbed by Russian scientists who experimented with fusion years ago — where fusion reactions will take place.

In order to replicate what the sun does, a “burning plasma” needs to be achieved in the fusion process. Atoms from two hydrogen isotopes are heated while being squeezed by massively powerful magnetic fields.

ITER will not capture the energy it will produce as electricity, but it hopes to prepare the way for a machine that can.

And ITER’s proponents say it will leave behind no high-level radioactive waste and will be safe.

“If you stop the magnetic field or stop heating the plasma, the whole reaction goes out,” Smith said. “There’s no way it can sustain and have a runaway like a Three Mile Island. That’s impossible to have in a fusion reactor … It is a safe, inherent energy source.”

What General Atomics is building

An incredibly powerful magnet that has been called the heartbeat of the ITER facility is being built by General Atomics in a 60,000 square-foot warehouse in Poway.

It’s called the Central Solenoid (CS), which helps drive the plasma’s current, which in turn makes the tokamak work to generate fusion. The plasma temperature the CS assists in producing is breathtaking — 10 times greater than the sun.

“It is crazy to think about, isn’t it?” said Smith, who has spent 10 years on the CS project and most of his career on nuclear fusion.

One of seven Central Solenoid modules being built by General Atomics as part of the ITER fusion energy project. Seven segments are spliced together to make a continuous coil. At this stage, the coil weighs 225,000 pounds. (Nelvin C. Cepeda / San Diego Union-Tribune)

Forty-five full-time employees at General Atomics work on the CS project, which started in 2011. Six 250,000-pound circular modules are being fabricated, each of them 7 feet tall and 14 feet wide and consisting of 3.6 miles of superconducting cable.

A seventh module will be built, Smith said, as “a spare.”

Each module will be shipped to the ITER facility in France, where they will be carefully stacked on top of each other. The first CS module will be ready to be transported in 2019 and the last one is expected to head to Europe in 2021, well in advance of the first scheduled operational test for ITER in 2025.

“We’re right on schedule, we’re meeting our milestones,” Smith said.

Will Congress and the Trump administration keep the money flowing?

The same cannot be said for the ITER project in its entirety.

Building the facility began a decade ago but the price tag for the project has blown past its original estimate of $5 billion. In 2015, the costs rose to about $16 billion and the latest estimate is $22 billion.

Continued participation in ITER will cost an additional $100 million to $125 million annually for more than two decades.

The costs have caused heartburn on Capitol Hill, which is not unprecedented. ITER funding was put on ice in 1998 but the U.S. rejoined the project in 2006.

Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-California) and Lamar Alexander (R-Tennessee) approved cuts to ITER in 2016, citing an effort to boost science projects based inside the U.S.

“This decision was carefully considered and absolutely necessary in order to make key investments in our national laboratories and universities,” Feinstein said at the time.

U.S. funding for ITER was cut from $105 million to $50 million in 2017.

Under a proposal from the House of Representatives, ITER funding for fiscal year 2018 will be cut from $120 million to $63 million. The proposal in the Senate is even more draconian — it calls for ITER funding to be zeroed out in 2018.

No wonder that ITER’s director-general, Bernard Bigot, was in Washington last month, talking up the project’s benefits and urging the U.S. remain committed to ITER.

“If the U.S. does not provide the necessary funds in 2018, then there will be an impact on the entire project,” Bigot told Reuters.

The position of the Trump administration is unclear. Last year it proposed a 20 percent cut to the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, which funds basic research for programs like ITER but Bigot said he was told the Trump administration is reconsidering the issue.

The final test chamber where a completed CS module is tested. It is first electrically tested, then cooled to -455 degrees Fahrenheit for three weeks. Once cold, the module is tested at full current, 50,000 amps. If even more tests are passed, the coil will be shipped to France. (Nelvin C. Cepeda / San Diego Union-Tribune)

If funding for the U.S. contribution is completely cut off, what would happen to the General Atomics portion of the project?

Smith said when the U.S. signed on to the ITER agreement, it pledged it would either fund or build the components for the CS — even if it pulled out of the project.

“If the U.S. chooses to violate that then I think they have significant problems (signing up for) any international science project in the future,” Smith said.

Stanford professor Franklin Orr dealt with ITER funding as undersecretary for science and engineering at the U.S. Department of Energy during the Obama administration and while he understands the frustration of ITER’s critics Orr said the U.S. should stick with the program.

“If we don’t deliver what we promised to deliver then we have to pay somebody else to do it anyway,” Orr said. “It is expensive, there’s no doubt about it but the international nature of it makes it worth investigating … so I’d stay in if I were king.”

ITER proponents acknowledge the project’s budget problems but insist Bigot, who took over two years ago, has turned things around. The director-general’s trip to Washington coincided with ITER declaring the project has reached the 50 percent completion mark.

“There’s been some misconceptions,” Smith said. “I think in the U.S. a lot of people think we’re just pouring money over to France. In reality that isn’t true. Ninety percent of the dollars the U.S. has appropriated though Congress is being spent here in the U.S.”

Will it all be worth it?

If ITER can speed developments leading to an era of mass adoption of fusion-energy power plants, the ramifications would be extraordinary, transforming the energy systems of developed and under-developed economies around the world.

But the “burning plasma” necessary for the project to work has never been created and even fusion’s proponents have said commercial applications may be — just as the industry joke said — at least 30 years away.

Standing on the work floor in Poway in front of one of the CS modules, the 55-year-old Smith said he thinks the ITER project will be a success but he also said he doesn’t think commercial devices will be up and running by the end of his lifetime.

“A good fraction of the 25 years of my career has been working on fusion energy, so I am invested,” Smith said. “I do want to see it succeed. I think it has great potential for the world … If there’s no risk there’s not a reward. And there’s no reward without a risk.”