Iter: building a reality?

18 June 2019

The Iter project is more than 60% complete and on track for first plasma in 2025. Could the dream of nuclear fusion be edging close to a reality? Caroline Peachey reports

IN SAINT-PAUL-LEZ-DURANCE, southern France, 2000 people are working around the clock on Iter, the world’s largest experimental fusion facility. The goal of the project is to harness nuclear fusion – the reaction that powers the stars – and to prove its viability as an energy source.

Fusion has been seen for years as the holy grail of energy production, offering a potentially limitless, low-carbon source of energy. But a commercial power station has always seemed decades away.

Now, as buildings, systems and structures, emerge from the 42-hectare Iter site, the fusion dream is edging closer to a reality.

It’s a remarkable shift from 2015, when Bernard Bigot was appointed as director general of the Iter Organization – the partnership of 35 countries collaborating to demonstrate the feasibility of fusion energy. Bigot’s first task was to establish a new cost, schedule and scope baseline for the project, which was plagued by protracted decision-making and facing delays and soaring costs.

When Iter was formally launched in 2007 it was expected to cost €5 billion, with first plasma scheduled for 2018, and deuterium-tritium operation expected in 2026. It soon became clear this was unrealistic. So Bigot created an action plan, based on a management assessment report provided in 2013, which set new working procedures and decision processes. It produced a realistic schedule targeting first plasma in 2025.

“We have seen a lot of change,” reflects Bigot, who was unanimously appointed to a second term as director general in January 2019.

“The atmosphere of the project has completely changed. People feel more and more that fusion is on track. Before it was more a dream.”

The revised schedule targeting first plasma in December 2025 also remains “on track”, Bigot told delegates at the Iter Business Forum in Antibes Juan les Pins, France, in late March. Nevertheless, challenges remain. “It is a fight. Every day I have to convince people that they need to find solutions and keep on schedule,” he says.

In such a multi-cultural mega project the challenges are threefold: technical, logistical and political.

The main task, Bigot notes, is to ensure that the work done in the 35 nations fully complies with the specifications and that deliveries will be on time and of sufficient quality.

Bigot likened the project to an extremely complicated Lego construction, saying that if one piece is missing — however small — the whole project will suffer.

Parts for the 5000t vacuum vessel, which have fit together with millimetre precision are being supplied by many different parties. Europe is responsible for providing five of the nine sectors of the vessel, and South Korea the remaining four. The in-wall shielding that will be bolted inside the vessel walls will be delivered by India, with Russia and Korea supplying the ports that will be welded onto the D-shape sectors.

“We have seen a great increase in teamwork between the different domestic agencies,” says Johannes Schwemmer, director of the European Domestic Agency, Fusion for Energy. “We are running this like one project rather than on separate agendas.”

Getting such huge components to site from around the world is another challenge. The vacuum vessel sectors and toroidal field coils are among 30 of the largest and heaviest Iter components, termed “super highly exceptional loads (HELs).” Parts heavier than 60t, or exceeding 5m in height and or width, are termed HEL and must travel a 104km route that has been specially adapted for Iter components. If a boat is a delayed it could have an impact on the overall schedule, Bigot notes. Later this year, toroidal field coil 12, which is nearing completion at Mitsubishi Heavy Industry’s Futami facility in Japan, is scheduled to dock at the Marseille-Fos harbour. The 18.5m high D-shaped magnet, weighing more than 500t, will be among the first of the mega components to arrive at the ITER site.

“Transport and delivery of this first toroidal field coil opens a new chapter in our collaboration with Iter,” François Genevey, the ITER transport project director at DAHER, told the ITER Newsline in April. Toroidal field coil 12 will travel to France in a transport frame designed by Mitsubishi Heavy Industry and Toshiba and equipped with polymer pads and acceleration absorbers to mitigate the effect of movement and to diffuse the stresses that will occur during transportation.

Assembly represents another challenge. “We will assemble the 18 toroidal field coils, six poloidal field coils and the central coils, which represent some 10,000 tonnes of superconducting magnets,” Bigot notes. The magnetic axis has to be positioned with an accuracy below a millimetre so digital technologies and virtual reality is playing a significant role in planning these assembly operations.

The final challenge is political. “I could not succeed if the seven members did not provide what they commit to deliver every year,” Bigot says. The Iter construction 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). However, in practice the members deliver little monetary contribution to the project, instead providing ‘in-kind’ contributions of components, systems or buildings.

Asked about the potential impact of Brexit, Bigot explained that ‘contingency plans are in place’ to deal with the UK leaving the European Union, and that on a practical level there will be little impact on Iter. A two-year transition arrangement has been put in place for British citizens working at the Iter Organization, and all existing contracts will be honoured. Bigot also stressed that the European contribution is provided through Euratom, which has committed to provide the necessary resources.

The UK has expressed a ‘strong commitment’ to continue its involvement in the project, but the funding level and type of arrangement have still to be finalised.

“No country could do this alone,” Bigot has said in the past. “We are all learning from each other, for the world’s mutual benefit.”

So why is fusion energy worth such international effort? “Worldwide, people are fully aware that the way we get energy supply is not sustainable,” Bigot told the IBF. “Nearly 85% of the world’s energy supply is coming from coal, gas and oil. We know it will not last forever. One day — before the end of this century — we need to substitute fossil fuels. That is why we are spending €20bn on this project,” he says.

He adds, “I know this technology is challenging. If we succeed it will be a major breakthrough, so we have to accept it will take time.”

“My hope is that by 2040, five years into Iter full-power operation, utility companies will get involved and by 2055 we’ll have a first operational hydrogen fusion power plant connected to the grid.”  

Engaged in construction 

Construction of the Tokamak Complex – a seven-storey structure that will house the tokamak, as well as diagnostic and tritium buildings needed for the machine’s operation – recently passed 60% completion, and the project is beginning to transition from construction to the assembly phase. Completion of the structure is expected in 2020.

ENGAGE, a consortium made up of four European companies: Assystem (France), Atkins (UK), Empresados Agrupados (Spain) and Iosis (France) is responsible for the construction of the entire Iter complex, including direct responsibility for 29 out of the 39 buildings, site infrastructure and power supplies.  

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