IAEA Fusion Energy Conference attracts record participation

11 May 2021

The 28th IAEA Fusion Energy Conference (FEC), which is being held on-line from 10-15 May, has attracted a record 3,400 attendees, including both full participants and observers. The conference organisers include the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the French Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission (CEA), and the ITER Organisation and the week-long programme takes full advantage of a powerful web platform.

Participants can type questions live during the scientific sessions, and receive answers during the question and answer sessions that follow. A live chat function permits viewers to correspond in real time with authors of e-posters. And recordings of all sessions become accessible on the platform the next day. In addition to the programme of scientific talks, many side events have been organised including:

A 30-minute virtual visit to the ITER worksite, technical tours of operating fusion devices, webinars, a virtual exhibit hall, and daily poster sessions. There are also three IAEA-sponsored events: "Women in Fusion," "Celebrating 60 years of Fusion Energy Conferences," and IAEA Learning Resources in Fusion: Educating the Next Generation of Fusion Experts."

In his opening remarks on 10 May, IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi reminded the audience of 1,000 participants and 2,400 observers that the biennial conference has always been the pre-eminent international gathering of fusion experts. "The first Fusion Energy Conference was held in 1961. Since then, it has helped the field of nuclear fusion, becoming the main platform for discussing key physics and technology issues as well as innovative concepts directly relevant to the use of nuclear fusion as a future energy source," he stressed. "Over the last years, we have seen fusion advancing quicker than ever before, opening new job opportunities and inspiring career horizons."

Alluding to all of the ways the Agency has been involved in fusion, Grossi invited countries sponsoring fusion programmes, the fusion industry and private partners to support and jointly participate in an IAEA coordinated feasibility study. The study will encompass the full scope of fusion pilot plant criteria and produce a set of technology-neutral requirements for the safe, secure and economically sound deployment of future fusion reactors.

Bernard Bigot, ITER Director-General, regretted that plans to host the 2020 conference in Nice, France, were derailed by the global pandemic. "But the pandemic has only delayed us in small ways. It has not stopped us in any way from pursuing our vision for fusion energy — as a future source of clean, safe, and virtually unlimited baseload power generation for all of humankind. In the same way, we can see that FEC 2020 has been delayed, but not prevented."

François Jacq, Chairman of the French Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission (CEA) and High Representative in France for the ITER Project, emphasised the strong links between CEA and fusion and France's continued strong commitment to the ITER Project. He echoed messages on climate action and fusion’s potential role in post-2050 energy mix. He described how the CEA has been involved in both magnetic and inertial fusion confinement research, and acknowledged the progress being made in ITER despite COVID-19. He said the Fusion Energy Conference was a "major biennial milestone”, and a venue where "top international players in the field of fusion energy will have the floor to present and discuss the state-of-the-art research and innovation in all fusion-related applications”.

European Union Commissioner for Energy, Kadri Simson, highlighted the EU’s 2050 climate-neutrality ambitions as a means to confront climate change, and described the bloc’s commitment to ITER as a scientific investment that could support climate goals. “Fusion may not be the energy source of tomorrow, but it may well be a solution for the second half of this century,” she said.

Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson, representing the USA, said fusion warrants far greater support than what has been provided to date. She said a breakthrough in fusion research would be a major step in enabling a clean energy future, adding that “the policy decisions and research investments we make now could well enable those key advances to come much sooner.”

On its conference web page, IAEA noted: “With a number of next-step fusion devices currently being implemented— such as ITER (International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor) in Cadarache, France, and the Wendelstein 7-X stellarator in Greifswald, Germany— and in view of the concomitant need to demonstrate the technological feasibility of fusion power plants, as well as the economic viability of this method of energy production, the fusion community is now facing new challenges. The way these challenges are addressed will determine the direction of research in the present and coming decades. The scientific scope of FEC 2020 is, therefore, intended to reflect the priorities of this new era in fusion energy research.”

In his welcoming address, Grossi also drew attention to the construction and assembly of the JT-60SA tokamak in Japan, which was completed in March 2020. “This project started in 2007 as a collaboration between Japan and Europe, and presently JT-60SA is the largest built tokamak in the world. It will soon begin addressing key physics and engineering issues for ITER and the Demonstration Fusion Power Plant (DEMO).” He also congratulated Eurofusion and the UK Atomic Energy Authority for the progress made in the new experimental campaigns with the European tokamak JET. “Starting in just a few months, the JET experimental campaign with Deuterium and Tritium will be a crucial source of experimental data, which will provide a unique physics and technology basis for ITER’s operation,” he said.

A highlight of this year’s conference is the release of the upgraded Fusion Device Information System (FusDIS). Developed and maintained by the IAEA, FusDIS is a tool for fusion researchers, compiling information from experimental fusion facilities around the world. The upgraded FusDIS features new dashboards, includes 119 experimental fusion devices operating, under construction or being planned around the world and technical data on many of them. It also includes country and organisation statistics on fusion research and development.

At a virtual press briefing on 10 May, ITER’s Bigot acknowledged that the project may face delays. The $22 billion International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, under construction in southern France, is facing higher costs and testing delays due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Bigot explained that the pandemic had caused the closure of workshops that make the delicate components and had interrupted the supply chain. “Despite our best efforts I expect we will have some delay,” he said adding that he expected to deliver a full impact assessment by the end of the year that will include higher cost estimates.

The delay comes at a time when the US National Academy of Sciences is calling on the US government to accelerate plans to start generating electricity with a pilot fusion plant by 2040. Bigot said the National Academy’s proposal should be seen as “complementary” to the ITER project. “We believe it is this type of ambitious target that can drive progress,” he said. Meanwhile, ITER is confident of maintaining its goal of starting fusion experiments in 2035. "The commitment, and the strong request of the member countries, is to maintain 2035, even if there are delays with the first plasma", Bigot said

IAEA’s Grossi told the press conference that 94 fusion devices are being developed, 85 of which are public-funded projects and nine private. He said $1bn has been invested in the projects and increasing amounts of capital are being raised. “What is clear is that the capital investment is the result of market forces and not public policy,” he said. “Some actors do not want to be left out of what is coming.”

He added: “The time is clearly coming [for fusion] and we are approaching it fast,” he said. “We need tools to decarbonise and this is one of them. It is not an academic endeavour in pursuit of an energy unicorn.”

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