ITER takes next step towards nuclear fusion energy

Posted on 18 Jul 2013

Work on the world's first, full-scale nuclear fusion project - ITER - will now enter the peak construction phase with the onsite workforce growing to 5,000 workers.

ITER, the world’s biggest experimental nuclear fusion facility, has entered a new phase of construction that will see 5,000 construction workers on site in Catarache, France in the coming months.

Announced at the Royal Academy of Engineering annual awards at Battersea Power Station last night (Wednesday), the project which began as a theoretical idea in the mid-1980s, has approved €1.8bn of component contracts to date, of a total of €4bn for the build phase.

It is the first infrastructure and engineering project that is a truly global collaboration, where countries including China, France, South Korea, Japan, Russia, the UK and the US are all involved in the consortium.

“The members of ITER and Fusion for Energy, the overseeing body, represent about 80% of global GDP,” said Stuart Ward, director of Fusion for Energy (F4E) at the RAEng Awards dinner last night.

“Europe has 46% of the value of ITER, with France taking the lion’s share of about 20% as having the host premium. About 6% of the €1.8bn contracted work is British. Personally I would like this to be more, but the portions are approximately in line with each country’s individual input so it is fair in that sense.”

Global engineering consultancy Atkins is the lead architectural engineer on the project, taking about a quarter of the work of the four senior engineering firms which have created a joint venture, the Engage consortium, responsible for design, build and testing.

ITER will use a unique pressure vessel, the Toromak complex, to generate power through nuclear fusion. Crudely, two elements deuterium and tritinum, are combined in a plasma field inside a chamber coated with lithium. The plasma is heated to an intense temperature when, theoretically, the two elements atoms fuse and neutrons are released. Neutrons hit the lithium wall, are absorbed which generates extraordinary amounts of heat, used to boil water and drive massive turbines.

“The centre of ITER will be about 150 million degrees Celcius, hotter than the Sun,” said Mr Ward. “Despite this it is considered safe because, unlike nuclear fission which remains reacting for hours after deactivating the process, fusion can be “switched off” immediately. Also there is negligible nuclear fall-out risk and virtually no carbon emissions, except in the construction.”

Atkins has completed one million man-hours of work on the ITER reactor to date.

Members of Engage say there is a huge amount of work still left to tender for, and British companies have a strong chance of success given its involvement in the design and engineering.


Picture courtesy of Fusion for Energy