Best Hope For Fusion?
Written by Tim Lash, Focus Fusion Society Contributor.
So much resources have been devoted to ITER it must be mankind’s best hope for achieving clean sustained fusion energy. Right? Many countries have devoted billions to its construction. Vast teams of researchers have engaged multiple fronts of science and engineering challenges. Road maps with timelines stretching into decades have been drawn. With so much activity this must be the ideal path to fusion, right? Last month the BBC posted a summary report that paints a pretty grim picture for ITER’s prospects.
ITER is an international effort to construct the worlds largest tokamak fusion reactor. The plans call for ITER to be built in southern France. Long ago the scientific community deemed the tokamak concept as most likely to produce net fusion energy. Fusion energy research has since focused on little else. ITER is the culmination of that focus. The irony is that the current mammoth reactor design is not meant to be a working power plant. ITER’s meant to prove net energy from fusion and act as a test bed for a commercial fusion reactor. This commercial fusion reactor called DEMO is slated to be built following the ITER project.
So lets talk timelines. A joint tokamak project was originally proposed by Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985 at a Geneva Summit. That turned into a 1988 proposal that became ITER. Design activities followed for the next 13 years. It took five years from 2001 to 2006 for all the participants to provide approval with construction to start in 2008 and take 10 years. 2007 saw approval of fourteen design changes. Site construction did not start until 2013. Tokamak construction started in 2015. Current projections place tokamak reactor assembly completion in 2021, first plasma in 2025 and start of deuterium–tritium operation in 2035. The DEMO project to follow was originally projected to be operating in the early 2040s, in order to supply electricity to the grid by 2050. But in the updated road map, yet to be released, DEMO would not start running until “early in the second half of the century”. A related document that provides more detail on DEMO’s design says that operations would start after 2054.
What about costs? Originally slated to cost five billion Euros for construction and another five billion for operation and maintenance over a 35 year operating life. Current ITER construction cost estimates exceed twenty billion Euro. Forty-five percent of this cost is borne by the host European Union. The remainder is split between 11 international partners. Although, this funding has been far from certain with many delays. The United States at one time abandoned the consortium and continues to debate whether continued support is warranted.
So much time and resources devoted to one fusion project while many others, such as LPP Fusion, go woefully underfunded. Ironically, there are serious concerns whether ITER will achieve its goals. Many think that the designed neutron flux will cause significant damage to the reactor during normal operation. With ITER the focus of so much money and resources, we may be missing out to the true best path forward by not supporting other eggs in the fusion energy basket.