Fusion projects make progress in 2020

3 February 2021

China’s HL-2M tokamak fusion reactor in Chengdu, Sichuan Province has finally been commissioned, while South Korea’s K-STAR fusion reactor has broken its own record for plasma generation. At the same time, the UK is looking for a site for its planned STEP fusion reactor, and Russian scientific institutions have decided to cooperate more closely on fusion development.

China’s HL-2M tokamak (Photo credit: CNNC)


China’s HL-2M tokamak at CNNC’s Southwestern Institute of Physics (SWIP) is capable of generating plasma over 150 million degrees Celsius and is expected to greatly strengthen the R&D of key technologies in plasma physics research in China.

In particular, HL-2M will provide key technical support for China’s participation in the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) project and frontier research areas, including flux instability and ultra-high temperature plasma magnetic phenomena.

HL-2M, built by SWIP is an upgrade of China’s previous model, the HL-2A — one of three major domestic tokamaks now in operation in China. The other two are the Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokamak (EAST) machine at the Institutes of Physical Science, Chinese Academy of Sciences (ASIPP) in Hefei and J-TEXT at the Huazhong University of Science and Technology (HUST). These have all paved the way for the China Fusion Engineering Testing Reactor (CFETR), the preliminary conceptual design of which was finished in 2015 and engineering design started in 2017.

South Korea’s K-STAR fusion reactor at the National Fusion Research Institute (NFRI), which also contributes to ITER, in November managed to operate the plasma at 100 million degrees Celsius for 20 seconds — the world’s first fusion reactor to maintain plasma for more than 10 seconds at that temperature. Previously, NFRI had achieved plasma for 1.5 seconds in 2018 and 8 seconds in March 2020. NFRI is aiming for 300 seconds by 2025 and also plans to commission a new generation K-DEMO nuclear fusion demonstration reactor by 2040.

In the UK, the government has called on local communities across the country to put forward proposals to host the Spherical Tokamak for Energy Production (STEP), which is being designed and will be constructed by the UK Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA). STEP will be an integrated plant, with much of the infrastructure of a power station, and will demonstrate the commercial viability of fusion. “Communities have until the end of March 2021 to submit their nominations and will need to demonstrate that their local area has just the right mix of social, commercial and technical conditions to host the new plant. In addition to its £222 million ($297 million) commitment to STEP, the UK government said it will invest £184 million by 2025 in new fusion facilities, infrastructure and apprenticeships.

The aim is to produce a ‘concept design’ for STEP by 2024 and to have a fully evolved design and approval to build by 2032, enabling operations to start from 2040.

Meanwhile, the Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS), the Kurchatov Institute and Rosatom have agreed to jointly develop promising thermonuclear and plasma technologies over the next four years.

“The material base and infrastructure of thermonuclear research in the institutes of RAS and Rosatom at the Kurchatov Institute will be substantially updated. Promising technologies will be developed and samples of new equipment will be created, which in practice will demonstrate the productivity of the ongoing thermonuclear research,” said Viktor Ilgisonis, director of scientific and technical research and development at Rosatom.

Rosatom said the project “bears a truly national character — in terms of the scale of tasks, breadth of coverage and level of planned results.” Russian fusion research also supports the international ITER project.

Construction of the ITER reactor at Cadarache in France is funded mainly by the European Union (45.6%) with the remainder shared equally by China, India, Japan, Korea, Russia and the USA (9.1% each).

The Council of the ITER Organisation said in November that it had reviewed in a videoconference the performance of the ITER Project toward first plasma in view of the COVID-19 restrictions. It said the project had “largely managed to continue its robust performance, both with respect to members’ delivery of first-of-a-kind components and worksite installation and assembly activities”. Some impacts on the schedule towards achieving first plasma in 2025 had been identified, “but still remain to be assessed after consideration of mitigation measures”.

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