Fusion energy: Update on the Big Tokamak

Tokamak construction site
ITER fusion generator site, Cadarache, France…Credit ITER

For those who thought the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland was a BIG engineering project, it is literally dwarfed by the construction of the world’s first fusion reactor – ITER (International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor or, alternatively, The Big Tokamak). This is one of those projects so big that its budget is “difficult to calculate precisely” and whose completion date has perennially been set a decade in the future. Yet, as the picture above attests, it is really under construction in Cadarache, France on some 90 hectares (220 acres) of land. Because the promise of fusion energy is so great and the trials of this world’s most expensive collaborative science project so monumental, it’s worth a periodic update…like this one.

A few media outlets noted that 2013 is something of a milestone year in that the foundations for the Big Tokamak – the massive magnetic chamber in which actual fusion will take place – are finally completed. This year the construction of the surrounding physical plant that will house and support the tokamak fusion generator begins. Work on the actual tokamak (a specific design for the container of the fusion reaction) is scheduled for completion by 2015. First plasma (the generation of enough heat to create energy plasma) is scheduled for 2020. Start of the actual deuterium to tritium fusion process predicted for 2027. Commercial operation – “sometime after that.” Of course, put quotation marks around the dates. Same goes for the price tag, which is now around 15 billion Euros (pushing $20 billion U.S. dollars). For comparison: The Large Hadron Collider cost about $9-$10 billion. The U.S. Apollo Man on the Moon space project cost around $14-$15 billion (adjusted dollars).

All that remains to do is bring in the tens of thousands of components, built in dozens of countries, some of which weigh more than 600 tons, and put them all together for the first time. Oh yes, and test them.

Snark never aside, this is the kind of project that lends itself to perpetual criticism, skepticism and plain old doubt. It’s so big, so ambitious and so theoretical – literally harnessing the process used by the sun to create energy – and so ever on the horizon, that taking potshots (or cannonades) against it are endemic. However, the project moves forward. Thousands of technical challenges already solved, over the years, which advance engineering knowledge along the way. The big question is inherent in the totality of the project: Can fusion energy be generated on a commercial scale? In other words, is it possible to build a means of generating energy from fusion that doesn’t require more energy than it produces. The theory and engineering designs say yes. The reality?

Brief update details: BBC Science ['Critical phase' for Iter fusion dream]

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One Comment

  1. James Makepeace
    Posted August 8, 2013 at 3:36 am | Permalink

    The National Ignition Facility in Lawrence Livermore USA is approaching the challenging goal of credible energy gain from laser-driven fusion, using the alternative approach to ITER.
    My money is on the laser people getting there first, but we need at least two approaches to work. The energy problem is so huge for the planet now (with our giant appetite for cheap energy at the flick of a switch) that even the obscene amounts of money being devoted to ITER are justified if the problem is to be solved. The laser approach will probably be much more economical, but its potential has yet to be fully understood by enough of those who vote the funding for this work.
    Watch for progress at the National Ignition Facility (NIF) !

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