The hugely ambitious project to replicate the energy of the sun is entering a critical phase, as scientists and technicians begin assembling giant parts of the nuclear fusion device aimed to develop the ultimate clean energy source.
Work has begun to assemble giant components to build an experimental nuclear fusion reactor in France that is expected to start up in 2035 and deliver energy in a process inspired by the sun.
Launched in 2006 and based in southern France, the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) had planned to test its first super-heated plasma by 2020 and achieve full fusion by 2023, the ITER project said.
But, it has suffered massive budget overruns and multiple delays as the seven partners – Europe, United States, China, India, Japan, Russia and South Korea – struggle to coordinate financing and technological cooperation.
At the end of 2016, ITER chief Bernard Bigot told reporters he expected first plasma in December 2025 and full power by 2035, although he said that schedule was challenging.
"Constructing the machine piece by piece will be like assembling a three-dimensional puzzle on an intricate timeline," he said in a statement on Tuesday. "We have a complicated script to follow over the next few years."
ITER confirmed that when assembly is completed in December 2025, it will launch first plasma, which should prove the reactor concept works.
Despite slight delays due to the coronavirus lockdown, ITER was still on track to start up in full power mode in 2035, an ITER spokeswoman said.
In recent months huge components, many weighing several hundred tonnes each, have begun to arrive in France.
These have been produced by ITER consortium member states, who contribute to the project mainly in kind, by manufacturing components in national factories and laboratories before shipping them to France for assembly.
Unlike existing fission reactors, which produce energy by splitting atoms, ITER would generate power by combining atoms at a temperature of 150 million degrees Celsius in a process similar to the nuclear fusion that produces the sun's energy.
Pandemic impacts initial schedule
“Clearly, the pandemic impacted the initial schedule,” said ITER’s Bernard Bigot. He said none of the on-the-ground staff has contracted Covid-19.
The project “seeks to create an artificial sun”, said South Korean President Moon Jae-in. “An artificial sun is an energy source of dreams.”
Among other elements, Korea is manufacturing four sectors of a vacuum vessel, a hermetically sealed chamber in which plasma particles, derived from heated hydrogen gas, spiral without touching walls. European countries are building five other sectors.
French President Emmanuel Macron hailed ITER as a “promise of peace” because it brings together countries that decided to forego differences for the “common good”. China, the US, India, Russia, South Korea and nations of the European Union are taking part in the project.
There was no sign of the acute discord currently roiling ties between the US and China, and India and China.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in a statement read by the Indian ambassador to France, called international collaboration “a perfect symbol of the age-old Indian belief ... (that) the world is one family.”
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World’s largest science project
Billed as the world’s largest science project, ITER is gigantic. The circular device, called a tokamak, has a 30-metre circumference, stands 100 feet high, and is made up of more than a million parts constructed in numerous countries.
The project's estimated cost just for the EU was about 20 billion euros ($23.5 billion), Bigot told reporters. He said a full price tag was difficult to estimate because participating countries make their own contributions.