UPDATED: Panel backs ITER fusion project’s new schedule, but balks at cost

Science Magazine By Daniel Clery | Apr. 28, 2016


At one of the most critical time in its history, leaders of the ITER fusion project are struggling to find a way to keep the project on track as schedules slip, costs rise, and budgets tighten. The project’s management last year put forward a revised schedule and cost, and the council of representatives from its member states asked a panel of independent experts to review them. Yesterday, the council met in special session to hear a report of the panel’s conclusions. The report—which has been seen by Science—concludes that, while the new schedule is feasible (powering up the reactor in 2025 for the first time), the extra funding needed to achieve it (€4.6 billion) is too much to hope for.

The council has now tasked the ITER management with finding a way to keep to the schedule while remaining within the financial constraints and differing budget cycles of the seven partners in the project–China, the European Union, India, Japan, Russia, South Korea, and the United States. “There is now a credible estimate of the schedule and cost envelope with respect to the financial capabilities of all the members,” says ITER director general Bernard Bigot. “All the pieces are in place to make a decision.” That decision will come at the council’s next meeting in June.

ITER, a roughly $20 billion international project that is the largest attempt so far to show that generating energy by fusing atoms together is at least scientifically feasible, has been plagued by delays and cost overruns. It has been 30 years in gestation but its site in Cadarache, France, is now abuzz with construction, and the components of its gigantic reactor are arriving from around the world. When the construction agreement was signed 10 years ago, ITER was due to be finished this year at a cost around a third of current estimates.

The continually moving target of completion is causing patience to wear thin among some of the members. The U.S. Senate, for example, has repeatedly cut ITER funding from recent budget markups only to relent in negotiation with the more enthusiastic House of Representatives. Some other members are understood to be equally frustrated. The timing of this week’s meeting is particularly sensitive because the U.S. Department of Energy has prepared a report detailing its arguments for staying in the project or not, which is expected to be released soon.

ITER had been struggling for several years with a schedule that no longer seemed feasible, and a 2014 review slammed its management practices. Bigot, a French nuclear physicist with extensive management experience in industry and government, was appointed later that year to shake up the organization and devise a credible schedule and cost. The new 14-strong review panel, headed by Albrecht Wagner, former chief of the DESY particle physics lab in Hamburg, Germany, praised Bigot for his management reforms, which it said “led to a substantial improvement in project performance, a high degree of motivation, and considerable progress during the past 12 months.”

The schedule that Bigot and his team have developed is also rigorously and logically worked out, the report says. By the new estimate, December 2025 is the “the earliest possible technically achievable date” for “first plasma”—the point where hydrogen gas is heated enough to ionize into plasma for the first time. However, the schedule includes no contingency in case of glitches along the way.

The big assumption behind this schedule, however, is that members can provide an extra €4.6 billion ($5.2 billion) between now and 2025. (That calculation includes only cash contributions members must make to the central ITER organization to pay for managing the flow of deliveries and putting all the pieces of the reactor together—not the actual reactor hardware being provided in-kind by all the member states.) The council made it clear at its last meeting in November that the cash would not be forthcoming, and the ITER staff has been carrying out modeling efforts to find a way to keep to the schedule at lower annual cost. One option being considered is delaying the construction of some components that aren’t needed for first plasma. That change would delay the start of experiments on a truly “burning plasma” made from the hydrogen isotopes deuterium and tritium (D-T) by an extra 3.5 years, to 2035. The report identifies some benefits—and risk reductions—from delaying the start of D-T operation, but the setback would be a bitter disappointment for fusion scientists who have already waited decades for this machine.

Bigot welcomed the conclusions of the report, which gives the organization “a green light to move forward,” he says. “We’re working hard to present a comprehensive picture in time for the next ITER council in June.”

*Update, 28 April, 6:22 p.m: This it has been updated to include information from ITER management’s report.