By Akshay Asija
The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) is an ongoing project that is administered and funded by the European Union, India, Japan, China, Russia, South Korea, and the United States. The goal of this collaborative megaproject is the construction of a Nuclear Fusion reactor near the Cadarache energy research facility in Saint-Paul-lès-Durance, in southern France.
The story so far
Construction of the reactor commenced in 2010 and was scheduled to complete in 2019. Initially, the cost of development of the reactor was estimated to be €5 billion, but increases in the price of raw materials, coupled with changes made to the foundational plans, have increased it to more than €20 billion. These developments have also delayed the completion of the construction of the reactor.
Recently, however, the project has overcome some of its setbacks. Last month, the project reached an important milestone: About of 50% of its infrastructural development has now been completed. According to current estimates, the reactor would be operational (and provide clean energy) by 2025.
How does it work?
The ITER works (or rather, would work) on the principle of nuclear Fusion. A nuclear fusion reaction takes place when two nuclei of a light element (usually an isotope of hydrogen) combine to produce completely different nuclei, along with the release of large amounts of energy. Unlike nuclear fission (which is the contrasting process of splitting a heavy nucleus to release energy and light nuclei), nuclear fusion does not lead to uncontrollable chain reactions or large quantities of radioactive waste. However, nuclear fusion requires very high temperature and pressure to take place.
To overcome the obstacles of high temperatures and pressure, artificial fusion reactions, like the one in the ITER, take place in Tokamak nuclear fusion reaction devices. Tokamaks are Torus (or simply, doughnut) shaped chambers in which gas pumped into a vacuum chamber is charged by the electricity that flows through the centre (i.e. the hole in the middle doughnut). The charged gas forms plasma (the fourth state of matter) that is then confined inside the vacuum chamber by applying strong magnetic fields to it. The temperature of the plasma is then raised by firing radio and microwaves into it. When the temperature nears about 100 million degrees, nuclear fusion can occur.
The future – what does it hold?
The high cost of the electricity that is needed to heat the vacuum chamber, along with the low resistance of most materials to high temperatures, have led to the ITER’s escalating costs. Now that the plans for the reactor have been finalised, scientists are hard at work to find optimal solutions to these issues, so that the nuclear fusion process can become more affordable and widely implementable.
Thomas Koshy, who heads the IEEE PES Nuclear Power Engineering Committee, feels that work on the ITER can be completed in two to three years and in another three to four years, repeatable results can be obtained. Researchers are optimistic that, given the pace of development, the process of nuclear fusion would soon become optimal and well suited for the generation clean energy. The ITER represents a significant step in that regard.
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