Building the world's largest nuclear fusion reactor

BARCELONA -- Part 1 in a two-part series: France and Spain are set to lead the world's biggest, 18-billion-euro physics experiment. What could go wrong?
Written by Jennifer Riggins, Contributor

BARCELONA -- Ground is now breakingin Cadarache, France, for the 18-billion-euro research facility dedicated to determine if the process that powers the sun can be harnessed to power our future without creating nuclear waste, causing meltdowns or producing carbon dioxide emissions.

The first nuclear fusion experiment of this magnitude, the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor project promises to produce almost as much energy as the typical nuclear fission plant.Combining 28 years of research from nations representing 80 percent of the world's GDP, ITER will be, by far, the largest international partnership to explore if the fusion of nuclei gives off bursts of energy that could more safely light Europe and beyond.

Today and tomorrow, SmartPlanet will discuss this project that has the research and investment of the European Union, the United States, China, South Korea, Japan, India and the Russian Federation, as we attempt to answer what fusion energy is, whether it’s safe and a feasible alternative to oil and gas, and how the public is reacting.

The seemingly endless search for an alternative to oil and a desire to stop greenhouse gas emissions has led to the founding of this multinational consortium to "find the way," which is what iter means in Latin. “ITER is just the way to find out if this is the next step in our energy mix,” says Aris Apollonatos, communications leader of the EU branch of the project, Fusion for Energy. Construction is set to end by 2020, with the first successful reaction planned for the same year. While figures seem to vary, as the ITER website explains, “"It's impossible to be more precise in estimating the cost of the project," it looks like the construction will cost about 13 billion euros, with another 5 to 6 billion to run the reactor and research.

What exactly is fusion? Modeled after the process by which the stars, including the sun, are powered, fusion is a process in which light atoms are fused together at extremely high temperatures -- 150 million degrees Celsius, or ten times the heat of the Sun -- until they turn into the less-talked-about fourth stage of matter, plasma. This really hot plasma, in turn, gives off energy. In the case of the ITER project, the hydrogen isotope deuterium,which is obtainedfrom water, and the lithium-derived radioactive hydrogen isotope tritium are fused together at these extreme temperatures. The end result is the formation of a helium nucleus, a neutron and a lot of energy.

One fusion reactor is predicted to produce 7 billion kilowatt-hours of energy a year -- less thanthe typical fission nuclear reactor, which generates about 12.2 billion kilowatts per year. On the other hand, while the fission reactor is usually between 30 and 45 percent efficient, the ITER fusion reactor is expected to produce ten times the amount of of energy needed to power it. Of course, as one retired nuclear power plant employee puts it, “Pure efficiency is virtually never the reason a particular type of generating plant is chosen. In the case of fusion, the minimal radioactive waste is the Holy Grail.”

Fusion is classified as a renewable energy resource because it produces no carbon dioxide in its output -- however, you still need high-voltage electricity to heat it up. Since it relies mostly on extracts from sea water, “it doesn’t have to be the same game as with oil,” Apollonatos says, referring to the endless geo-political struggle over that Texas tea. “Many of the regions of the world that supply our energy are geographically remote and some may be politically unstable.”

The biggest question with atomic energy, of course, is: Will it be safe? The scope and scale of the ITER experiment has never been attempted before, as this kind of fusion has only produced megawatts of power for seconds at a time in small labs, but Apollonatos is certain of ITER’s safety. ITER and fusion are hugely different from the Fukushima power plant and those other nuclear fission reactors powering France and much of the world. Fission, like its name suggests, separates particles in a reaction that can create energy, but which can sometimes be uncontrollable. Fusion forces particles to join and should also produce energy, however, Apollonatos assures that, if anything goes wrong, the plasma cools itself, automatically stopping the process. He says there is no risk of meltdown or runaway reactions.

He also says that “The fusion fuel primary material is completely different,” than that is used in fission-based nuclear reactors. The hydrogen isotopes deuterium and tritium were chosen not just because of their wide availability, but because they don’t have a long-term legacy of radioactive waste and should be released from regulatory control and potentially recycled 100 years after ITER is inevitably closed. Nuclear reactors are typically open for only 21 to 30 years, and ITER is only intended for research anyway.

Cadarache is also located in a more geographically stable place than, for example, Fukushima, Japan. Signifying France and the consortium's confidence in the safety of the project, ITER will sit around the corner from one of France’s active nuclear reactors. ITER is also the first nuclear fusion facility to have gone through the highest level of checks and to be given approval by the French nuclear ministry. “The red tape is terribly high, even more than fission because we are making history,” Apollonatos says. “ITER is the only [fusion experiment] that has met that scale or scope” that would be required to have this level of approval, he explains.

The internationalization of "fusion energy research for peaceful purposes" dates back to 1985, when the U.S., the then Soviet Union, the European Community and Japan created the Atomic Energy Agency. By 2007, China, India and South Korea had come on board in the shared research and economic commitment to form ITER, a joint effort to develop this renewable energy source.

Fusion for Energy, which will provide about 45 percent of the total ITER funding, is focused on this goal of limiting European dependence on foreign energy. Europe is very keen on developing energy that utilizes readily available natural resources -- like the 70 percent of the earth covered in waterand the minerals from the Earth’s crust -- instead of continuing the status quo, in which Europe is importing about half its energy, mostly oil and gas. If current trends continue, Europe is set to import 70 percent of its energy by 2030.

Originally, Spain, France and Japan were bidding to host ITER. Cadarache, France was ultimately chosen as the location over Tarragona, Spain because -- while Spain is known for its exploration of a broad range of energy resources, from its three nuclear power plants and its more common electromagnetic dams to being a leader in renewable energy research -- France has a history as a leader in nuclear energy dating back to the time of de Gaulle. Plus, France simply has more money to invest into ITER.

While France won out on location, Spain received the authorization to award the contracts for the work, including the main administrative office located in Barcelona, which led to 436 new jobs. Spain has 14 contracts totaling 200 million euros. Two of these winning bids went to COMSA and Ferrovial, two of Spain's largest construction companies that have been forced to downsize dramatically since 2008. Spain is in charge of building the infrastructure of the small ITER village of 39 buildings. France will head the building of the reactor itself.

Overall, the ITER project is set to create nearly 4,000 jobs, mostly for the French, Spanish and Japanese, who were the third bidders for the project location and who were promised at least 20 percent of the researcher jobs.

Japan will also prepare for the next step down the road, when the research from ITER will be applied at their still-to-be-built demonstration power plant, which will work to transfer any fusion-fueled power to electricity grids and, ultimately, to the public.

Read Global Observer colleague Bryan Pirolli's take on how the public is reacting to the somewhat quiet building of the ITER reactor.

Photos/Satirical Video: Fusion for Energy

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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