International fusion power project faces delays, boss says

An international nuclear fusion project could face “years” of delays, its chief told AFP, weeks after scientists in the United States announced a breakthrough in their own quest for the coveted target.

The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) project seeks to prove the feasibility of fusion as a large-scale and carbon-free energy source.

Installed at a site in southern France, the decades-old initiative has a long history of technical challenges and cost overruns.

During fusion, the nuclei of light atomic elements are squeezed together in a superheated plasma held in place by powerful magnetic forces in a ring-shaped chamber called a tokamak.

The idea is that fusing the particles of hydrogen isotopes — which can be extracted from seawater — creates a safer and almost inexhaustible form of energy than splitting atoms from uranium or plutonium.

ITER’s previously stated goal was to generate the plasma by 2025.

But that deadline has to be postponed, Pietro Barabaschi – who became the project’s general director in September – told AFP during a visit to the facility.

The date was “not realistic from the outset,” said Barabaschi, even before two major problems emerged.

One problem, he said, is incorrectly sized joints for blocks to be welded together for the facility’s 19 by 11 meter chamber.

The second was traces of corrosion in a heat shield designed to protect the outside world from the intense heat generated during nuclear fusion.

Fixing the problems “isn’t a matter of weeks, it’s months, even years,” Barabaschi said.

A new timeline is expected to be worked out by the end of this year, he said, including some changes to curb expected cost overruns and meet safety requirements from France’s nuclear safety agency.

Barabaschi said he hopes ITER will be able to make up for the delays as it prepares to enter the full phase, currently scheduled for 2035.

On December 13, US researchers working independently of ITER announced a major technical breakthrough.

Scientists at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) in California said they used the world’s largest laser to create for the first time a fusion reaction that produces more energy than is needed for production.

“A bit of competition is healthy in any environment,” Barabaschi said of the success.

“If someone finds another breakthrough tomorrow that would make my work redundant, I would be very happy,” he added.

ITER became operational after a summit between US President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985.

Its seven partners are China, the European Union, India, Japan, South Korea, Russia and the United States.

Russia is still involved in ITER despite the start of the Ukraine conflict.

In November, it delivered one of six giant magnets needed for the top part of the tokamak.

© 2023 AFP

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