Under new leadership, the long hunt for emission-free fusion energy rumbles on

CADARACHE, France -- In a polished warehouse spanning two football fields, a half-dozen wood-paneled crates along a wall patiently await unpacking in the cavernous, empty building.

The lonely crates are a small sign of progress in the world's most ambitious energy experiment. They house spools of metal that, when cooled to 4 degrees above absolute zero, will act as superconductors.

The conductors are some of the first components to arrive at the work site carved into the hills of southern France, joining drain tanks and electrical transformers. The warehouse itself will become a factory, using the conductors to build some of the largest and strongest magnets the world has ever seen.

Over the next five years, they will integrate with cooling systems, containment chambers, microwave heaters and fuel injectors manufactured all over the world to form the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor.

Also known as ITER, the project aims to lay the groundwork for solving humanity's energy conundrums once and for all, pooling know-how and hardware from 35 countries to harness the reaction that powers the sun, yielding gargantuan amounts of emission-free energy at an affordable price from a fuel measured in grams (ClimateWire, Sep. 20, 2014).


But with costs projected to top $20 billion -- more than triple the initial estimate -- and yearslong delays from mismanagement, the project's new director is now working to right the ship, trying to maintain ambitions without yielding to cynicism in a complicated experiment assembled in an even more complicated way.

Unlike other big international science projects like CERN, ITER members contribute in kind, each building a given set of components and then putting them together in Cadarache.

The slow politics of cooperative science

Though the technical challenges of getting tiny atoms to stick together are immense, the greater hurdle is keeping bickering, skittish member nations on task and on time. This experiment in international cooperation on energy could serve as a microcosm of broader action on climate change.

Later this year, 460 miles north in Paris, countries will meet to hash out an agreement on greenhouse gas emissions.

Pacific islands threatened by rising seas will have to work with nations that depend on oil exports. Developed countries blessed with abundant hydropower will have to come up with a plan that's acceptable to billions around the world who see fossil fuels as their ladder out of poverty.

These climate negotiations hinge on how humanity will reach equilibrium with its environment, and managers at ITER are confident that part of the answer is a bet on fusion, the longest of long shots.

"All [countries] are very keen to understand how they will get their energy supply in the long term," said Bernard Bigot, director-general of ITER. "All of them know that the way they proceed is not sustainable, and they want some alternative."

Bigot, who is now two months into the job, previously led France's nuclear energy agency, CEA.

He noted that fusion has long been an international endeavor, springing from the intersection of idealism and research. ITER itself emerged in November 1985 at a summit in Geneva, where President Reagan, Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev, French President François Mitterrand and U.K. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher agreed to pursue fusion for peace in the waning years of the Cold War.

However, fusion experiments predate ITER by decades, and many continue in parallel around the world, all having failed to reach the tipping point of producing more energy than needed to trigger the reaction.

The hope is that ITER will accomplish collaboratively what nations have failed to do individually. In the process, the project will serve as an international fusion academy, training scientists and engineers all over the world to develop their own reactors. "It's a big headache, but that's the beauty of ITER," Bigot said.

Decision delays have been expensive

As part of the reforms for the project, Bigot said ITER's central organization would now take a more decisive role rather than deferring to members in steering the experiment.

This will allow the project to make faster decisions. Bigot noted that every day of delay while awaiting a decision on procurement or design costs the project more than $1 million.

In the near term, Bigot and ITER's management plan to issue a revised schedule for the project this November, accounting for progress in manufacturing hardware, problems with integrating components and the logistical difficulties of shipping massive, sensitive pieces of equipment around the world. He declined to comment on the pace of progress before the schedule comes out, though administrators have previously said they expect to start running experiments at ITER by 2020.

Yet, as the new administration tackles governing issues, scientists still have to grapple with the vast technical challenges of fusion.

When it comes to the project's scale, Bigot was adamant that ITER would not budge. "I do believe, as it was worked out in the beginning, that the size and the scope of this facility is the right one," he said.

Outside the superconducting magnet warehouse, tower cranes loom over a concrete pit that will house the world's largest tokamak, a Russian acronym meaning toroidal (doughnut-shaped) chamber with magnetic coils.

When complete, the tokamak will be about as large as the Jefferson Memorial, and the reaction chamber will be big enough for an elephant to saunter through. It's a huge step up in size and complexity from the current king, the Joint European Torus in the United Kingdom.

The goal is to harness the reaction that powers the sun, a process so powerful it can burn your skin from 93 million miles away. One gram of fusion fuel -- deuterium and tritium isotopes of hydrogen -- produces as much energy as 8 metric tons of oil.

Add heat to the hydrogen fuel and you form a plasma, a high-energy state of matter where electrons are ripped from their nuclei. When two hydrogen nuclei collide and stick, they form helium and eject a high-energy neutron. The resulting nucleus has a mass slightly less than the sum of its parts. This mass difference is dissipated as energy as described by Einstein's mass-energy equivalence formula, E=mc².

Thinking and building big

ITER's Q ratio, the amount of energy produced relative to the amount put in, will be greater than 10, yielding 500 megawatts of power. The current Q ratio record, held by the Joint European Torus, is around 0.65.

The sun's advantage is that it has so much matter that it exerts significant gravity, which pulls atoms close together to make them fuse. Without this gravity, ITER needs higher temperatures, to the tune of 150 million degrees Celsius, 10 times hotter than the sun.

Containing this much plasma at such high temperatures requires powerful magnets, the likes of which have never been built before. ITER's design calls for magnets that generate a magnetic field 200,000 times stronger than that of the Earth. To operate, scientists will have to cool the magnets to -269 C less than a yard away from the heated plasma, the hottest substance in the solar system.

The United States, among its contributions, is responsible for the central solenoid, the magnets that go through the middle of the doughnut in the tokamak.

The solenoid will stand more than 40 feet tall and will be built from six magnets, each weighing 110 tons. The forces they exert could levitate an aircraft carrier.

John Parmentola, senior vice president at General Atomics, the subcontractor that is currently building the six magnets -- plus one spare in San Diego -- said that his company is learning a great deal by building a device like this on such a large scale and that the final product will cost around $200 million.

"I think it's safe to say it's the highest-power central solenoid ever built," he said. "This is a monumental undertaking."

Though researchers are learning by doing, at this point, scientists still don't know what they don't know when it comes to fusion, so more hiccups and curveballs may yet crop up. This uncertainty keeps ITER in the political crosshairs in the United States.

U.S. budget-cutters become restless, again

Last week, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee, proposed cutting $150 million for ITER. In the previous Congress, the committee voted to withdraw entirely from ITER, noting that the move could save taxpayers close to $6.5 billion over the life of the project.

ITER's delays and cost overruns also triggered an investigation from the U.S. Government Accountability Office, which faulted poor management for these problems. The United States previously withdrew from the project in 1998 before rejoining it.

On the other hand, in a House Energy subcommittee hearing earlier this month, Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.) said he was more optimistic about fusion than conventional fission reactors, which generate electricity by splitting uranium to boil water.

Other member countries face similar dilemmas over where to invest in their energy future, weighing economic demands and environmental concerns like smog-covered skies and rising temperatures.

When compared with existing energy systems like fission power plants and wind turbines, a process that has never been demonstrated and has a history of broken promises is a tough sell, but Mark Henderson, a scientist at ITER, remains a true believer in fusion and humanity's need for it.

"We're not only eating up our resources at a faster rate, but we are very undisciplined, we have no forethought, and we are just consuming," Henderson said. "And to me, before we basically just die in our excrement like yeast, I think we need to start dreaming."

Henderson likened the project to building a cathedral, an endeavor that spans decades to serve the future. "It may not be for our generation," he said. "I expect to retire before I see a [deuterium-tritium] plasma."

As ITER rises from the concrete and rebar under the Mediterranean sun, Henderson and his colleagues are hustling to ensure they are building a temple and not a tomb to one of humanity's greatest efforts to save it from itself.

Twitter: @umairfan | Email:

Like what you see?

We thought you might.

Start a free trial now.

Get access to our comprehensive, daily coverage of energy and environmental politics and policy.



Latest Selected Headlines

More headlinesMore headlines

More headlinesMore headlines

More headlinesMore headlines

More headlinesMore headlines