ITER (International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor) is an international nuclear fusion research and engineering project, which is currently building the world’s largest experimental tokamak nuclear fusion reactor at the Cadarache facility in the south of France. The European Fusion Development Agreement (EFDA) has published a roadmap which outlines how to supply fusion electricity to the grid by 2050 with ITER as one of its units. The roadmap to the realization of fusion energy breaks the quest for fusion energy down into eight missions. For each mission, it reviews the current status of research, identifies open issues, proposes a research and development program and estimates the required resources. It points out the needs to intensify industrial involvement and to seek all opportunities for collaboration outside Europe.
There is no fusion power on line right now. The theory suggests that fusion power is safer and cleaner than fission power.
The half-life of the radioisotopes produced by fusion tends to be less than those from fission, so that the inventory decreases more rapidly. Unlike fission reactors, whose waste remains radioactive for thousands of years, most of the radioactive material in a fusion reactor would be the reactor core itself, which would be dangerous for about 50 years, and low-level waste another 100. Although this waste will be considerably more radioactive during those 50 years than fission waste, the very short half-life makes the process very attractive, as the waste management is fairly straightforward. By 300 years the material would have the same radioactivity as coal ash.
Fusion power would provide much more energy for a given weight of fuel than any technology currently in use, and the fuel itself (primarily deuterium) exists abundantly in the Earth’s ocean. Seawater is easier to access and more plentiful than fossil fuels, fusion could potentially supply the world’s energy needs for millions of years.
The goal of fusion research is to make the energy of the stars available on Earth by fusing hydrogen nuclei. It does not produce greenhouse gases or long-lived radioactive waste. It is intrinsically safe, as chain reactions are impossible.
So far, fusion scientists have succeeded in generating fusion power, but the required energy input was greater than the output. The international experiment ITER, which starts operating in 2020, will be the first device to produce a net surplus of fusion power, namely 500 megawatts from a 50 megawatt input.
Europe holds a leading position in fusion research and hosts ITER. The fact that the ITER project is funded and run by six other nations besides Europe reflects the growing expectations on fusion energy. China, for instance, is launching an aggressive program aimed at fusion electricity well before 2050. “Europe can keep pace only if it focuses its effort and pursues a pragmatic approach to fusion energy” states Dr Francesco Romanelli, EFDA Leader.
Focusing on the research and engineering activities needed to achieve fusion electricity, the road map shows that these can be carried out within a reasonable budget. The amount of resources proposed are of the same level as those originally recommended for the seventh European Research Framework Program — outside the European investment in the ITER construction.
The road map covers three periods: The upcoming European Research Framework Program, Horizon 2020, the years 2021-2030 and the time between 2031 and 2050.
ITER is the key facility of the road map as it is expected to achieve most of the important milestones on the path to fusion power. Thus, the vast majority of resources proposed for Horizon 2020 are dedicated to ITER and its accompanying experiments. The second period is focused on maximizing ITER exploitation and on preparing the construction of a demonstration power plant DEMO, which will for the first time supply fusion electricity to the grid. Building and operating DEMO is the subject of the last road map phase.
For further information see Road Map.
Article by Andy Soos, appearing courtesy Environmental News Network.