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Cost overruns and mismanagement threaten world's best hope for fusion power

Cost overruns and mismanagement threaten world's best hope for fusion power Anthony Harrington

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Building the multi-billion International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), the world's first near-commercial scale fusion power generator, was never going to be easy. The ITER project is not just one of the biggest science projects ever contemplated, its costs are now set to exceed the build and run costs of CERN's Large Hadron Collider (LHC), which cost $4.7 billion to build and has running costs of around $1 billion a year. The LHC gave the world proof that the Higgs Boson exists. ITER, if it doesn't get scrapped or mothballed before completion, aims to show that fusion power is doable. Whether fusion can be made commercially  viable is a different question altogether.

ITER is being built at Cadarache, in the South of France by a consortium consisting of the European Union's (EU) Euratom, which is providing some 45% of the funding for the first ten years of the project, with China, India, Japan, Korea, Russia and the United States as the other main partners. In all, some 35 nations are involved in the project.

ITER was a massively ambitious and expensive project from the outset. At the heart of ITER's fusion generator is a plasma hotter than the surface temperature of the sun, contained by magnetic forces inside a steel torus. The plasma has to be kept from touching the walls of the container which would melt instantly on contact, turning the multi billion euro project into so much slag metal.

To generate the magnetic force required to contain the plasma, ITER needs 80,000 kilometers of niobium-tin superconducting strands. The manufacture of these alone is a mammoth project. Production began in 2009, is still ongoing and involves six suppliers, in China, Europe, Japan, Korea, Russia and the USA. The ITER Tokamak, the metal container for the plasma, will weigh in at 23,000 tons, or the equivalent of three times the steel in the Eiffel Tower. There are over 1 million components to the Tokamak, which is a vast engineering project in its own right.

When the project kicked off in 2001, the EU's contribution was costed at €2.7 billion. By 2010, the European Commission had said that cost overruns meant that the EU's contribution was expected to rise to €6.6 billion for the period 2007-2020, plus some €650 million in running costs. The European Parliament, not surprisingly, began to get fractious and there were calls for the project to be abandoned.

The Greens, who tend to punch above their weight in the European Parliament, are not anti the idea of fusion per se, but they hate the idea of ITER being such a mammoth undertaking that it sucks cash away from potential renewable technologies that are much closer to the Greens' way of thinking. Plus there are a number of EU parliamentarians who reckon that commercially viable fusion is just science fantasy anyway, and that the whole project was always going to turn into a bottomless money pit.

Nor is it just the EU Parliament. In July 2014, perhaps not surprisingly given the pressures on the US budget, the US Senate budget committee voted to halt US participation in ITER. The US role is fairly minuscule anyway, with the US contribution stated to be just $150 million for fiscal 2015 (beginning 1 October 2014). The Senate wants that cut back to $75 million and it wants that spend to be used to wind down US involvement in ITER.

However, the House of Representatives apparently sees things differently. Their appropriations committee has voted to extend the US contribution to ITER to $225 million. An article in Science Magazine points out that the estimated total US share of ITER, which was $1.1 back in 2006 when the US joined the project, is now put at $3.9 billion. First electricity from the project, which was originally slated for 2013, now might happen in 2033, or perhaps another decade or so on from there. This is not a simple project and there are way too many cooks spoiling this particular broth. ITER work has to be shared out fairly equitably, with each of the contributors supposedly playing to their strengths. But muddle and poor administration, aided and abetted by political infighting, are damaging the project to the point where it could sink.

Encouragingly, William Madia, a former director of the US Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and two colleagues Charles Shank and T.J. Glauthier, produced a report for ITER detailing the organization's failings and making 11 recommendations as to what needs to be done to enable ITER to get a grip of things. Madia is peculiarly well positioned to solve ITER's problems as he oversaw construction of the Spallation Neutron Source, which itself cost $1.4 billion and which, according to an article in The New Yorker was completed on budget and ahead of schedule, and which is regarded as an absolute model of how to do large complex science construction projects.

So far ITER leadership has apparently read the report and found it so alarming that they have buried fathoms deep under a seal of secrecy and no one knows how many or how few of Madia's 11 recommendations for fixing ITER, the organization's senior management mean to adopt. The Executive Summary of Madia's report, including a brief account of the 11 recommendations can be found on the New Yorker link already provided.

With one gram of fusion material being equivalent to eight tons of coal, the world needs fusion if it is achievable. It really could change the game for industry around the world - and if fusion reactors start being built in numbers, history tells us that the cost will come way down. So ITER needs not just to survive all the budget bleating, it needs to prosper. Whether it will or not, though, is in the lap of the gods...

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Tags: electricity generation , energy , fusion , ITER , nuclear power , Oakridge laboratory
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