Largest nuclear fusion reactor in the world enters ‘assembly phase’

29 Jul 2020

French president Emmanuel Macron speaking remotely at the ITER event. Image: ITER Organisation

The €20bn ITER project to build a nuclear fusion reactor has officially begun its assembly stage, decades after it was first envisioned.

An international collaboration aiming to replicate the power of the sun within a reactor on Earth has reached its next milestone. The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) based in southern France has been designed, manufactured and constructed over the past decade, but yesterday (28 July) it officially entered its assembly phase.

On 26 May, the first major component of the nuclear fusion reactor was installed, making it the first of many elements that will enter the so-called ‘Tokamak Pit’ over the next few years. Large components for the machine have been shipped from all over the world and are now waiting to be installed by a 3,000-strong assembly team.

Nuclear fusion has long been seen as the ‘holy grail’ of energy production as it could create a near-limitless, cheap and clean source of electricity. Recent advancements using machine learning and plasma physics have helped find ways to overcome the immense challenges of achieving stable plasma within the ITER reactor.

Participating members in ITER include the EU, China, India, Japan, South Korea, Russia and the US, which all share the cost of construction. If all goes according to plan, the ITER reactor will reach another major milestone by generating plasma in the reactor by the end of 2025. This will be the start of a process that aims to find ways of keeping that plasma stable for more than just a few minutes.

ITER aims to be a testbed for future commercial reactors, rather than being plugged into a domestic grid.

‘An act of confidence in the future’

Speaking at the launch, French president Emmanuel Macron said: “ITER is clearly an act of confidence in the future. The greatest advances in history have always proceeded from daring bets, from journeys fraught with difficulty.

“At the start it always seems that the obstacles will be greater than the will to create and progress. ITER belongs to this spirit of discovery, of ambition, with the idea that, thanks to science, tomorrow may indeed be better than yesterday.”

Plans for ITER were first proposed 35 years ago. In 2005 it was announced the ITER would be located in southern France and two years later the ITER Agreement legally came into existence. But political disagreements and budgetary issues have led to a number of delays.

The EU’s commissioner for energy, Kadri Simson, said of this latest milestone: “It is not only a milestone on the path to fusion power, but also a valuable tool for investment and development of our industries. This is why the EU will maintain its support to ITER over the next seven years.”

A variety of private nuclear fusion enterprises are also underway such as Commonwealth Fusion Systems, which recently raised $84m to develop its own experimental reactor.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic