$16-million-a-second and no electricity

Exorbitant fusion project is obsolete and might even be inoperable

By Linda Pentz Gunter

As defined by World Nuclear News, the international fusion project known as ITER, exists “to prove the feasibility of fusion as a large-scale and carbon-free source of energy. The goal of ITER is to operate at 500 MW (for at least 400 seconds continuously) with 50 MW of plasma heating power input. It appears that an additional 300 MWe of electricity input may be required in operation. No electricity will be generated at ITER.”

Four hundred seconds. No electricity.

ITER, which stands for International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, is a collaboration between 35 countries that was first conceived in 1985 and formally agreed to on November 21, 2006. Construction began in 2010 at the Cadarache nuclear complex in southern France. 

The  official seven group founding members of ITER are China, the European Union (then including the UK, which remains in the project), India, Japan, Korea, Russia and the United States.

Aerial view of the ITER site in France. (Photo: Oak Ridge National Laboratory/Wikimedia Commons)

By the time ITER is actually operational — if it ever is — it will have gobbled up billions of dollars. Currently, those cost estimates range wildly between the official ITER figure of $19-23 billion (likely a gross under-estimate) and the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) current estimate of $65 billion.

The starting price when the project began was around $6.3 billion.

If the DOE numbers are right, then those 400 seconds will cost $16.25 million a second. Just to prove that fusion power is possible. Without actually delivering anything practical at all to anyone.

Whatever the costs, they are too high to be remotely justifiable, given the end product and the far more compelling and essential competing needs of the world right now. 

Worse still, ITER may not actually work. “ITER is of the tokamak based design using strong magnetic fields to confine the very hot plasma needed to induce the fusion reaction,” explained two scientists in a January 2021 paper published in NaturePotential design problems for ITER fusion device. “Building a successful magnetic fusion device for energy production is of great challenge.” 

The paper’s authors, Hassanein and Sizyuk, who modeled the ITER design “in full and exact 3D geometry,” contend that, “The current ITER divertor design will not work properly during transient plasma events and needs to be modified or a new design should be developed to ensure successful operation and maintain the confidence in the tokamak concept as a viable magnetic fusion energy production system.”

So far, the ITER project has already experienced some technical failures. The most notable, perhaps, came last November, when the project team announced that because defects had been found in the thermal shields and vacuum vessel sectors of the reactor, these would need to be dismantled and repaired. The team warned this would cause both further delays and cost increases that “will not be insignificant”.

Of course, the fundamental challenge facing all fusion reactors is that, as Daniel Jassby, a former fusion research physicist, wrote in an April 2017 article that we republished,  “they consume a good chunk of the very power that they produce, or what those in the electrical generating industry call ‘parasitic power drain,’ on a scale unknown to any other source of electrical power.”

They also lend themselves to the proliferation of nuclear materials, and are immensely costly, problems, Jassby says, that “will make fusion reactors more demanding to construct and operate, or reach economic practicality, than any other type of electrical energy generator.”

But things remain full steam ahead at Cadarache with all team members remaining on board. This includes the participation of Russia, which remains part of the project despite that country’s invasion of Ukraine and the ongoing war there. That war has served only as a minor bureaucratic complication, as parts coming from Russia faced delays mainly due to “more paperwork, more justification to explain to the various European countries that no, we are not subject to sanctions,” ITER’s chief engineer, Alain Bécoulet, told Politico.

Just last month, a key large component, a poloidal field coil produced in Russia, arrived at Cadarache after journeying by ship from St. Petersburg, Russia to Marseilles and then by road. This afforded Rosatom Director General, Alexei Likhachev his own PR moment when he said

“I would especially like to emphasize that inside, at the heart of the coil, there is a Russian superconductor … the ITER project is a vivid example of the closest international cooperation, scientific and technical cooperation … Russia has been, is and will be an integral part of the ITER project and world thermonuclear research.”

ITER central building construction. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

But that international cooperation may end up being its only claim to fame.

“Whether ITER performs poorly or well, its most favorable legacy is that, like the International Space Station, it will have set an impressive example of decades-long international cooperation among nations both friendly and semi-hostile,” wrote Jassby in a February 2018 article in The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. 

While some critics have blamed international collaboration for adding to ITER’s extreme costs, Jassby counters that ITER’s soaring price tag is very much in keeping with the trend among new fission reactor projects as well. “The underlying problem,” he wrote, “is that all nuclear energy facilities—whether fission or fusion—are extraordinarily complex and exorbitantly expensive.”

There is now considerable competition in the fusion field, with US laboratories, especially, eager to demonstrate ITER as obsolete before it is even completed — current predictions make that date some time in 2035. But, as we pointed out last December, during the false fanfare about a breakthrough at the National Ignition Facility (NIF), fusion is already obsolete. Given the confluence of the climate crisis and emerging energy needs in much of the less developed world, fusion has no practical applicability.

International collaboration is desperately needed in today’s conflict-riven world. It just needs to focus on something that’s mutually beneficial to our collective survival. Let’s start spending $16 million a second on that.

Linda Pentz Gunter is the international specialist at Beyond Nuclear and writes for and curates Beyond Nuclear International.

Headline photo: ITER polodial field coils, with a superconductor provided by Russia, under construction at the site. (Photo: Johannes Reimer/Wikimedia Commons).

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