ITERations towards a better future

29 January 2001

What is the future of the fusion R&D reactor ITER (International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor). A number of companies gathered together in Toronto to find out.

Representatives of world-leading companies in systems engineering and the supply of high technology met in Toronto recently in order that they could discuss the industrial aspects of the construction of a controversial nuclear fusion R&D facility that is called ITER (International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor), at an estimated cost of $6 billion.

Proponents of the tokamak project, such as Peter Barnard, chair and CEO of the non-profit ITER Canada, which was established in 1998 to promote and lobby for Canadian siting of ITER, call it the “largest international collaborative R&D project after the Space Station, and it is the crucial last step before the world builds its demonstration fusion power plant.”

Detractors of the project, such as Dave Martin of the Sierra Club of Canada Nuclear Campaign, which is the prime mover for Canadian nuclear phaseout, have castigated the ITER project as being “a tragic and very hazardous misallocation of resources which, if it is realised, is certain to hinder funding of promising green energy alternatives.”

Industrial participation

The Third International Industry Liaison Meeting of ITER, which was chaired by Alain Vallee of Framatome, took place November 6-7, but ITER Canada did not release a communique until mid-December. Firms attended the meeting from the European Union (Framatome, Belgatom and Ansaldo), Japan (Hitachi, Toshiba and Mitsubishi), Russia (three technology companies), the United States (Raytheon, General Atomics, Fusion Power Associates and Washington Group) and Canada (Ontario Power Generation, formerly Ontario Hydro, and three small Toronto area companies).

Unresolved industry differences

A relatively short consensus communique, hammered out during the five weeks after the meeting by Team representatives, reflected a number of unresolved differences between the USA, Japanese, European and Russian Teams on the mechanisms for integrating industry skills into the ITER project structure.

The European Team believe that high technology, novel or first-of-a-kind components should be ordered by the ITER Legal Entity (ILE) from industry under “build-to-print” specifications.

Lev Golubchikov, the fusion director of the Moscow-based MinAtom and the point of contact for the Russian Team at the meeting, told Nuclear Engineering International in January that the Russian Team agreed with Europe, and he stressed that “all industrial activity in ITER design and manufacture should be under the strong supervision of the ILE.”

However, the US Team sought to minimise build-to-print contracting in favour of the intellectual engagement of the best industry people to design and manufacture components and subsystems.

In a closely related dispute, Team Japan said that it wanted personnel to be assigned from industry directly to the ILE, while the USA wanted experienced fusion firms to provide the project management and coordination of all ITER construction elements.

Site selection

The meeting revealed that there were big political and social difficulties over site selection. The communique stated that the choice of ITER site is on the critical project path. “For the efficiency of the project, the choice of a preferred site, subject to final agreement on terms, should be made as soon as possible and certainly well before the end of 2002, in order to allow site specific design, licensing, final costs and cost sharing to be established and a final agreement to be negotiated.”

Canada, Europe and Japan are planning to propose a number of candidate ITER sites.

The ITER Joint Central Team has issued procurement documents for the main ITER systems to the Parties to enable the industrial costing of the “reduced cost” ITER, after the dramatic 1998 US withdrawal from the ITER Engineering and Design Activities phase of 1992-2001. JCT director Robert Aymer, who represented the Team at the Toronto meeting, said that the biggest difficulties in realizing ITER “are not scientific or technical, but financial, political and social” (Physics Today, March 2000).

Whether or not Aymer’s optimism on the development of fusion technology is justified, the fact remains that two of the key political and social aspects of ITER site selection are government support and the “willing host” issue, and these variables are expected to play a significant role in the siting competition.

Darlington B site

Meeting participants visited OPG’s four unit, $12 billion, 3,740 MWe Darlington nuclear generating station on the north shore of Lake Ontario, 50km east of Toronto. Ontario Hydro under its ebullient Demand/Supply Plan of 1989 planned to add a second four unit station at Darlington, but dropped the idea several years later. The land earmarked by the utility for Darlington B has become the Canadian ITER plot. However, ITER Canada officially calls this ground its “Clarington” location, after the local Clarington municipality in Durham Region, the easternmost region in the Greater Toronto Area.

Participants inspected the highly unique Tritium Removal Facility, which extracts tritium from the heavy water coolant and moderator of OPG’s 20-reactor Candu fission fleet, and from the Gentilly 2 and Point Lepreau Candu stations in Quebec and New Brunswick. OPG then returns the heavy water stripped of its tritium to the reactors, and immobilizes the tritium on titanium hydride sponges for storage and marketing.

Barnard noted that TRF is the world’s “only adequate source of tritium for ITER”, and exulted that no public transportation of tritium would be required if ITER is sited at Darlington.

In its “Expression of Interest to Host ITER,” submitted to the European Commission in January 2000, ITER Canada offered OPG’s “site, energy and tritium” and possibly in-kind contributions for a Darlington ITER. ITER Canada pledged to contribute, chiefly from unknown private sector sources, “up to 25 percent” of anticipated ITER construction costs, and in addition to the site some “10 to 20 percent” of the estimated $6 billion operating costs integrated over 20 to 30 years.

Ottawa won’t champion ITER

The Canadian government has thus far refused to fund ITER. However, the Ontario government told Ottawa in an unpublished 1996 letter that it is conditionally “willing to commit” up to $7 million annually for 30 years to support ITER siting in Ontario. The two governments have not published the terms and conditions of this commitment.

ITER Canada’s “Expression of Interest” sent a “friendly host” message to the EC, purporting broad siting support from “the Canadian labour movement and a large number of major Canadian companies, universities and institutions.”

ITER Canada is embarrassed before the EC by Ottawa’s refusal to champion its Darlington siting bid. Mainly on fiscal grounds, Ottawa terminated its $17 million annual support for Canadian fusion R&D in 1997, making Canada the only G8 country lacking a fusion research thrust.

Jim Campbell, a senior official in Natural Resources Canada’s energy policy branch, and the federal government's observer on the ITER Canada board, told Nuclear Engineering International that “it is unusual to locate a science project in a country where the central government does not provide funding for at least some aspect of the venture. However, ITER Canada believes the natural advantages of the Darlington site greatly reduce the cost of ITER construction and operation, compared to those of the competing ITER sites.” Canada is part of the European Team in ITER, and Ottawa is therefore placed in a delicate position of deciding whether to openly support Darlington in its competition with the European site, or to quietly work behind the scenes for the EU.

Stephen Dean, president of Fusion Power Associates, said that “a Canadian ITER site would provide numerous advantages, including on-site access to tritium, lower costs to the main ITER parties, and enhanced likelihood of renewed U.S. government participation in ITER.”

Durham Region-based Martin criticises ITER Canada’s apparent refusal to endorse a “full-scope” federal environmental assessment of the Darlington ITER project, which Martin said should be conduced by the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency, a unit of Environment Canada, and not the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (formerly Atomic Energy Control board), which Martin calls a major collaborator of the nuclear industry. The assessment would include public hearings, intervenor funding and the right to cross examine ITER Canada. Martin warns that “an accident such as failure of a superconducting magnet could lead to the large scale release of tritium from the ITER tokamak building.” He alleges that “Clarington was chosen as a nuclear sacrifice area because it already hosts Darlington and the TRF, with OPG’s Pickering A and B nuclear generating stations 30 km to the west, and an unfortunate historic disposal site for uranium refinery waste 20 km to the east. A second refinery waste site is less than 30 km away in an adjoining township.”

Cadarache site

The possible European ITER candidate site is at the large Cadarache nuclear research centre of the French Atomic Energy Commision (CEA), 40 km northeast of Aix-en-Provence in southeastern France. The 1,600 hectare inland site, with 5,000 employees, hosts the Tore Supra tokamak, which entered operation in 1988 as the first large tokamak with a superconducting magnet.

Michel Chatelier, deputy head at Cadarache of the Controlled Fusion Research Division, an association of Euratom and the CEA, told Nuclear Engineering International on January 19 that at the July session of the Consultative Committee for the Euratom fusion research and training programme (CCE-FU), France's Ministry of Research and the CEA jointly proposed Cadarache if Europe decides to bid for ITER. “Most European delegations warmly welcomed this announcement, and the CCE-FU asked the European Fusion Development Agreement Leader to assess the capability of Cadarache to host ITER. A preliminary site assessment was issued in December 2000, and a more comprehensive report with technical, safety, licensing and costing data is expected in early summer.”

Three rival Japanese sites

Three sites in Japan – Naka, Rokkasho and Tomakamai – are competing to host ITER, but neither Japan nor any other party will be allowed to propose more than one site. Japan will therefore have to select among its three sites internally before proposing one site to the ITER Parties.

The Japanese Team indicated that ITER construction in Japan is supported by the powerful Japan Federation of Economic Organizations (Keidanren). If true, this would be a big advantage for Japan, because no analogous high level business support has been announced for the Darlington and Cadarache bids.

The best known Japanese site is Naka in Ibaraki Prefecture, 10 km inland from the Pacific ocean and 90 km northeast of Tokyo. Naka is one of the two work sites of the ITER Joint Central Team, along with Garching in Germany. Naka hosts the Japan Atomic Energy Research Institute’s JT-60 tokamak, sometimes called the world’s fusion machine closest to ITER. Naka lies 8 km west of JAERI’s Tokaimura nuclear R&D centre. Public indignation following the September 1999 criticality accident in the Sumitomo JCO Co. uranium processing facility at Tokaimura now overhangs all nuclear siting and construction decisions in Japan.

The village of Rokkasho in Aomori Prefecture, 10 km from open water at the northern tip of the main Japanese island of Honshu, hosts a nuclear fuel cycle complex with a gas centrifuge uranium enrichment plant, a low level radioactive waste storage facility, and a nuclear fuel reprocessing plant under construction. The first full-scale shipment of 24 tonnes of spent fuel arrived amid protests at Rokkasho in mid-December.

Some local residents have established the “Group of 10,000 Plaintiffs for the Lawsuit to Stop the Rokkasho Nuclear Fuel Cycle.” A third site, with high technology aspirations but no apparent nuclear qualifications, is Tomakamai, a Pacific Ocean port in southwestern Hokkaido,

Japan’s northern island.

Japan’s Kyodo News Service jumped the gun in a flawed news release from Tokyo on December 26, 2000, reporting that a decision had just been made internationally to build ITER in Japan. In the short euphoric release, Kyodo announced that Naka, Rokkasho and Tomakamai had all declared themselves “willing hosts” of ITER, but also acknowledged that ITER installation is likely to draw public protests in Japan.

Yoshitaki Hirotani, manager of project planning and promotion at the Japan Atomic Industrial Forum, denied the Kyodo report, and explained to Nuclear Engineering International that “the Special Advisory Committee on ITER to the Japan Atomic Energy Commission met in Tokyo on December 25 to provide recommendations to the JAEC on Japan’s future role and direction in ITER after the EDA phase.” The Committee urged the JAEC to promote ITER siting in Japan, and was expected to deliver its formal recommendation to the Commission in late January.

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