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movements in nuclear fusion: ITER

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the world’s biggest clean energy project? ITER in southern France

Geographical, the magazine of the UK’s Royal Geographical Society, had an article in its April 2021 edition entitled ‘Caging a Star’, all about the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) project in Provence, France. Thermonuclear fusion has of course been talked up as an ultimate solution to our energy needs for decades, to the extent that it’s become something of a joke, but in the meantime, practical movements are underway. In fact, they’ve been under way for a long time. An international contract was signed in 1986 to implement research on fusion, though it took another twenty years to agree on the site for ITER. The project now involves 35 countries – largely WEIRD ones (Western Educated Industrial Rich Democracies), producing 85% of global GDP. It’s a long-term project, certainly, but it’s being taken seriously, and construction is happening, big-time.

With the IPCC having recently come out with its 2021 report, nations are looking to their targets and feeling concerned – some more than others (wake up Australia). Boštjan Videmšek, the author of the Geographical article, assesses the current situation in stark terms:

70% of all CO2 emissions pumped into the atmosphere are created through energy consumption; 80% of all the energy we consume is derived from fossil fuels. The EU has formally pledged to start producing half of its electric energy from renewable resources by 2030. By 2050, the bloc’s members are planning to hoist themselves into a fully carbon-neutral society. But, given current trends, this seems like wishful thinking. Renewable energy resources simply won’t be enough for the task.

The ITER project came out of the closet, so to speak, in late July 2020, when the heart of the project, the tokamak, began to be assembled onsite – though construction of various elements of the program have been going on for years. A tokamak is a toroidal or doughnut-shaped chamber, controlled by huge, powerful magnets, in which hydrogen plasma is manipulated to produce energy according to Einstein’s mass-energy equation. We all know, I hope, that fusion is constantly happening in the sun, and in all suns throughout the universe, and that its energy is essential to our existence, but ITER’s scientists are hoping to improve on the sun’s processes. Hydrogen collisions inside the sun don’t always result in fusion – the fusion process is quite slow. Recognising this, researchers looked to isotopes of hydrogen to speed up the process. Hydrogen’s most common form, consisting simply of a proton and an electron, is called protium. However, there are two other isotopes, deuterium and tritium, containing an additional one and two neutrons respectively. The best form of fusion reaction for producing energy is DT fusion, using deuterium and tritium. This produces more energy, at a lower temperature. The problem is with the tritium, a highly radioactive and unstable isotope, which is both rare and expensive, at about US$30,000 per gram. The rarity, though, is related to low demand, and there is potential for ITER to produce its own supply of the isotope.

Of course, none of this is expected to be ready in the near future. ITER is essentially a proof-of-concept project for future power plants, and is expected to spend a decade in testing, finalising in around 2035. Those future power plants are already ready and waiting, at least in terms of design. The key to achieving fusion is a sufficiently high temperature (150,000,000 degrees celsius!) and high particle density, for an optimum fusion rate. Containment of the volatile plasma will also, of course, be an issue. ITER’s experiments will also be about capturing and utilising the energy produced. As Videmšek describes it:

The idea is that heat will build up along the sides of the tokamak, where it will be captured by the cooling water circling the reactor. As in a normal power station, the heat will be used to produce steam and – by way of turbines and alternators – electricity. The water will eventually be released with the help of vast cooling towers. These have already been put in place…

The science itself, as researchers told Videmšek, is straightforward enough, but the infrastructure, the international nature of the project, the politics and the funding can all provide obstacles. The siting in Provence has helped, as France has successfully embraced nuclear fission technology for decades, and the project is a boon for the Provençal economy. And of course there’s the global warming issue. The IPCC has just released its 6th Assessment Report and, among other findings, has confirmed what we here in Australia have experienced regarding extreme weather events:

Human-induced climate change is already affecting many weather and climate extremes in every region across the globe. Evidence of observed changes in extremes such as heatwaves, heavy precipitation, droughts, and tropical cyclones, and, in particular, their attribution to human influence, has strengthened since the Fifth Assessment Report (AR5).

The report argues that, ‘unless deep reductions in carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gas emissions occur in the coming decades’, this scenario of extreme weather events will continue into the foreseeable future. These deep reductions, it seems, are a matter of political will, not to mention recognition of the crisis, which is clearly not universal. The way that many nations, including some of the most powerful and impactful on climate, have dealt with the clear and present threat of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, doesn’t provide much cause for optimism. If the ITER project, mostly funded by EU nations, goes off without a hitch over the next few decades, it may just put another nail in the coffin of our self-destructive exploitation of fossil fuels. Better late than never I suppose…


Boštjan Videmšek, ‘Caging a star’, in Geographical, April 2021


Written by stewart henderson

August 15, 2021 at 7:19 pm

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