Nuclear fusion – nowhere near even a feasibility study

Nuclear Fusion Project Struggles to Put the Pieces Together Scientific America, 27 Oct 12,Contracting woes may cause further delays for $19.4-billion ITER, a project designed to show the feasibility of nuclear fusion as a power source

By Geoff Brumfiel and Nature magazine The world’s largest scientific project is threatened with further delays, as agencies struggle to complete the design and sign contracts worth hundred of millions of euros with industrial partners, Nature has learned.

ITER is a massive project designed to show the feasibility of nuclear fusion as a power source. The device consists of a doughnut-shaped reactor called a tokamak, wrapped in superconducting magnets that squeeze and heat a plasma of hydrogen isotopes to the point of fusion. The result should be something that no experiment to date has been able to achieve: the controlled release of ten times more energy than is consumed.

That’s the dream. But so far, ITER has been consuming mostly money and time. Since seven international partners signed up to the project in 2006, the price has roughly tripled to around €15 billion (US$19.4 billion), and the original date of completion has slipped by four years to late 2020. Many of the delays and cost increases have come from an extensive design review, which was completed in 2009 (see ’Fusion dreams delayed ’).

Now, sources familiar with the project warn that the complex system for buying ITER’s many pieces could put the project even further behind schedule. Rather than providing cash, ITER’s partners have pledged ‘in kind’ contributions of pieces of the machine. Magnets, instruments and reactor sections will arrive from around the world to be cobbled together at the central site in St-Paul-lès-Durance in southern France. Because no one body holds the purse strings, designs for the machine’s components face a tortuous back-and-forth between the central ITER Organization and national ‘domestic agencies’, which ensure that local companies secure contracts for ITER’s components.

Nowhere is the problem more pronounced than the tokamak, the central structure that will eventually house ITER. The construction of the building is meant to be contracted out by Fusion for Energy (F4E), Europe’s domestic agency. But the ITER Organization could not tell the agency what needed to be built, says Rem Haange, ITER’s technical director, until it received data from the other domestic agencies on the numerous systems and subsystems that the building must house. That process was seriously behind schedule when Haange arrived in 2011, he says. “Not a single piece of data had been given by the domestic agencies.”…….

holding onto the date for start-up may delay the first power-producing experiments, now scheduled for late 2027 or early 2028. Those experiments require a radioactive isotope of hydrogen called tritium to be produced on site. The necessary tritium plant may have to be delayed to keep to the current budget and schedule, Haange says. That delay may be politically unacceptable,  he says. “We will have to find ways of recovering potential time delays.”

This article is reproduced with permission from the magazine Nature. The article was first published on October 26, 2012.


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