ITER nuclear fusion reactor hit by COVID delay, rising costs

“While we were progressing on a monthly rate of nearly 0.7% on average during the last five years, last year in 2020 we were only able to achieve 0.35%,” explained Bernard Bigot, the director general of ITER. [ITER]

The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) currently under construction in Cadarache, southern France, will see cost overruns and delays due to the disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, its top official said on Friday (17 September).

When the ITER project was launched in 2015, the schedule was to have the first plasma by the end of 2025 and full nuclear fusion by 2035, said Bernard Bigot, the director general of ITER.

“We were on track until the end of 2019 but unfortunately, as you know, the world has been impacted by COVID-19,” Bigot told journalists during an online press conference on Friday (17 September).

As a result of the pandemic, factories were stopped and ships that took on average 45 days to deliver components from Korea took 90 days to arrive, he indicated.

“While we were progressing on a monthly rate of nearly 0.7% on average during the last five years, last year in 2020 we were only able to achieve 0.35%,” he explained.

“So clearly, first plasma in 2025 is no longer technically achievable.”

The delay means the costs of ITER will also likely go over budget, because of “running costs that cannot be eliminated,” Bigot explained, saying he was preparing a full review for the ITER Council in November 2022.

That said, Bigot expressed confidence that with the COVID-19 crisis receding, “we will be able to keep to the real target”, which is to attain full fusion power by 2035.

Work starts in France to recreate power of the Sun

Fourteen years after receiving the official go-ahead, scientists began to assemble a machine in southern France on Tuesday (28 July) that will seek to prove whether nuclear fusion, the process which powers the Sun, can be a safe and viable energy source for Earth.

ITER is an international project funded by 35 partner countries, including the European Union, the UK, Switzerland, China, India, Japan, Korea, Russia and the US.

The goal of the experimental plant is to demonstrate that fusion power can be generated sustainably, and safely, on a commercial scale. “Fusion provides clean, reliable energy without carbon emissions,” said a statement from the 35 ITER partners.

The European Union finances 45% of the costs, with €5.6 billion provided under the EU budget, said Kadri Simson, the EU’s Energy Commissioner, who was speaking alongside Bigot at the press conference.

Simson said she was “very impressed” by the construction site. “This is a unique project in frontier science that should break the borders of fusion research. And this is why I came here today – to witness the construction of the biggest fusion tokamak in the world, and to speak with the leading experts on how fast we can have this breakthrough.”

The project reached a milestone on 9 September when the first module of the world’s largest and most powerful magnet – called The Central Solenoid – was delivered to the construction site in Cadarache.

ITER has faced criticism over mounting costs, with early estimates soaring from €5 billion to around €15 billion. The European Parliament voted in January 2019 to extend ITER’s funding through to 2027, with Green MEPs denouncing it as a “chimera” project that takes away public funds from renewables.

MEPs agree to fund ‘chimera’ nuclear fusion project

The European Parliament voted on Tuesday (15 January) to extend the funding of an experimental fusion power reactor through to 2027, although some MEPs are still concerned about the multi-billion euro moon-shot that could revolutionise the way power is generated.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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