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Saturday, August 1, 2020

August 01, 2020
The world's largest nuclear fusion project that will replicate the reactions that power the sun in pursuit of clean power has begun assembly in France. Pictured, the base of the cryostat — the chamber which will create the ultra-cool vacuum environment needed to operate the reactor's superconducting magnets — was lowered into ITER on May 26 this year

The world's largest nuclear fusion project that will replicate reactions in the sun to create the ultimate clean energy source has begun assembly in France.

Located in Provence, the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor — or ITER, for short — is expected to start delivering energy in the year 2035.

Fusion power works by colliding heavy hydrogen atoms to form helium — releasing vast amounts of energy in the process, as occurs naturally in the centre of stars.

In such stellar furnaces, it is gravity that overcomes the tendency of the charged hydrogen atoms to repel away from each other — like two positive ends of a magnet.

In ITER, however, this will be done by creating a ring of charged, super-hot gas called a plasma — reaching some 270,000,000°F — which will be held in place by magnets.

For the same amount of fuel, fusion produces around four time the energy of a conventional nuclear power station — which uses atom-splitting, fission, reactions.

Fusion — dubbed a 'miracle for our planet' — uses easy-to-source fuel and provides cheap, clean and safe energy without radioactive waste, or the risk of meltdown.

Seven main international partners are collaborating to bring ITER's practical fusion power to reality — including China, Europe, India, Japan, Russia, South Korea and the US.

The ITER project was launched in 2006 and had originally planned to conduct its first test run this year, to reach full fusion by 2023.

However, the project has faced assorted delays as a result of financing issues, budgetary overrun and, most recently, set-backs due to COVID-19.

At the end of 2016, ITER director general Bernard Bigot reported that the new schedule would aim to see so-called 'first plasma' — to prove the reactor concept works — by December 2025, and full operation reached by the year 2035.

He admitted, however, that the plan would be 'challenging' to deliver and that further delays remained a possibility.

'Clearly, the pandemic impacted the initial schedule,' Dr Bigot added on July 28, 2020, during the assembly launch ceremony for ITER's plasma-containing Tokamak device, which was virtually attended by world leaders and national representatives.

None of the staff at the ITER site — located in at Saint-Paul-les-Durance, northeast of Marseille — has contracted COVID-19, he said

'Constructing the machine piece by piece will be like assembling a three-dimensional puzzle on an intricate timeline,' Dr Bigot continued, comparing the intricate workings of ITER to that of a Swiss timepiece.

Dubbed by some as the world's 'largest science project', ITER's central Tokamak has a circumference of around 98 feet and stands just as high.

'We have a complicated script to follow over the next few years,' Dr Bigot added.

In fact, it is estimated that the ITER machine will comprise more than one million individual parts that will need to be assembled together.

If the project is successful, a second, scaled-up version could later be built to provide more power to the grid.

In recent months huge components — many weighing several hundred tonnes each that required specialist lifts and cranes to position correctly — have begun to arrive in southern France in preparation for the assembly to begin.

These have been produced in national laboratories across the member countries of the ITER consortium member states, who contribute to the project mainly in kind.

South Korea's contribution, for example, included manufacturing four sectors of the vacuum vessel within which the super-heated fusion plasma will circulate — with magnets 'confining' the flow and stopping it from touching the surrounding walls.

South Korea's President, Moon Jae-in, has said that the project to create 'an artificial sun' will produce 'an energy source of dreams.'

The other five sectors of the vacuum chamber are being constructed in Europe.

According Dr Bigot, the total financial investment placed in ITER is hard to quantity, given the international involvement in the project — however, he estimated that the European Union has contributed some €20 billion (£18.1/$23.5 billion)

President Emmanuel Macron of France hailed ITER as a 'promise of peace', bringing together various countries to forego their differences for the 'common good.'


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