MEPs agree to fund ‘chimera’ nuclear fusion project

Aerial view of the ITER construction site, July 2018. [Photo: ITER]

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.

Work in still ongoing in the south of France to build the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) reactor, which is meant to demonstrate that fusion technology can produce more energy than is needed to fuel it.

MEPs meeting in Strasbourg agreed to sign off on the €6 billion proposed budget for the  2021-2027 period but also pointed out that construction was meant to be completed by 2020.

In 2016, the council that governs the project approved a new timetable, under which the initial stage would only be reached by the end of 2025 at the earliest. Net-power gain is earmarked for 2035.

Nuclear fusion project leader laments 'uncontrollable' political forces

Creating an experimental nuclear fusion reactor is an undertaking that has to face both technical and political challenges. Bernard Bigot, director general of the ITER project, told EURACTIV Spain that the political forces are “more uncontrollable” though.

It is a slow process and a full fusion reactor, which could generate ten times more power than is needed to run it, might only be ready to come online in 2055.

The green light from the Parliament means that ITER can now be added to the EU’s upcoming wrangling over its next overall long-term budget, the Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF).

As host of the international experiment, the EU foots the largest part of the bill, although the US, China, South Korea, Japan, Russia and India are also partners and pay their way.

But Greens MEP Michèle Rivasi criticised the EU assembly’s decision to award the €6 billion to a project she has denounced as a “financial chasm” and a “scientific chimera”.

In a tweet on the day of the vote, the influential French lawmaker called on her colleagues to “get out of this Promethean dream”, adding that “energy control and the development of renewable energies” should be the priority.

State-of-play

ITER is about 60% complete as of 2019 and experimental work is still ongoing into how to control the fusion process once the reactor is operational.

Fusion works by creating the conditions needed for hydrogen to form helium, a reaction that releases enormous amounts of energy and which is also the process that keeps our Sun alight and burning bright.

But fusion needs temperatures to reach hundreds of millions of degrees Celsius and to maintain those temperatures in order to work. If successful, this forms a plasma, which also must be contained. Recent tests have shown that magnetic fields could be used to maintain the process.

ITER project leader Bernart Bigot told Handelsblatt this week that fusion reactors will be necessary in order to fight climate change, but also be able to produce energy “when the wind isn’t blowing and the sun isn’t shining”.

Bigot also said that fusion reactors, unlike conventional fission reactors that are in use around the world, can be brought online and switched off very quickly. They also only use tiny amounts of nuclear fuel, so disposal is less of a problem.

A US study by the department of energy estimated that final costs could be three times higher than previously thought, although Bigot insisted initial costs calculated in the mid-2000s were plagued by “enthusiasm outweighing the complexities”.

He added that any claims made about true cost increases are “based only on lack of knowledge” and that estimates made in 2015 are now final.

UK willing to keep funding EU nuclear fusion project after Brexit

The British government said on Tuesday (27 June) it would continue to fund a collaborative nuclear fusion project with the European Union to 2020 if the bloc extends Britain’s contract to host the facility beyond 2018.

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