Most people are too pre-occupied with their immediate personal lives and material needs to worry about the legacy of their nuclear waste or what would happen to North America or Europe if a spent nuclear fuel storage pool were destroyed in a natural disaster, act of war, or terrorist attack. They are even less likely to be aware of the gargantuan amounts of energy and money being spent on the chimera of a future society running on green, clean fusion energy. Even most politicians have no clue about the projects that exist.

The subject comes up occasionally in discussions of climate change, and optimism about fusion energy cuts across lines of political ideology. Socialist historians and political analysist such as Caleb Maupin believe the Chinese economic model will be capable of investing the necessary resources to make fusion energy a reality in the next century. His knowledge of history is excellent, but his scientific expertise may be lacking. He doesn’t accept the gloomy vision laid out by ecologists who say it is industrial civilization, not capitalism per se, that is unsustainable.

To evaluate the feasibility of fusion energy dreams, one has to listen to the people who have been working on fusion energy projects for the last forty years, and especially the last twelve years since construction started on the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) megaproject in France. From such people one can begin to understand the insurmountable problems and the decades or centuries that required to make the first working fusion reactor that might generate electricity for practical purposes—if indeed one could ever be built, and if indeed technologically advanced civilization continues after the ecological collapse and extinction events that are supposed to occur sometime in the 21st century. We are effectively being made to buy a bond that cannot be redeemed until after our death, and it may be worthless paper by then in any case.

We could say that while ITER is unlikely to pay off as we think it should, it is another iteration the theme of high-salary jobs for people trained in the STEM fields (sciences, technology, engineering and math). For unfathomable reasons, our civilization is not able to create mega-projects for educators, artists and horticulturalists. It’s only the big tech and weapons industries that we value.

In 2017 and 2018, Daniel Jassby wrote two articles on fusion energy and the ITER complex for The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists. He concluded that “the most starry-eyed energy planners” are likely to abandon the project in the coming years. And Daniel Jassby is not the sort of person fusion energy advocates could dismiss as an uninformed outside critic with an irrational fear of neutrons being liberated from their nuclei. He was a physicist at the Princeton Plasma Physics Lab and worked for twenty-five years in plasma physics and neutron production related to fusion energy research and development. In the 2018 article he wrote:

Whether ITER performs poorly or well, its most favorable legacy is that, like the International Space Station, it will have set an impressive example of decades-long international cooperation among nations both friendly and semi-hostile… A second invaluable role of ITER will be its definitive influence on energy-supply planning. If successful, ITER may allow physicists to study long-lived, high-temperature fusioning plasmas. But viewed as a prototypical energy producer, ITER will be, manifestly, a havoc-wreaking neutron source fueled by tritium produced in fission reactors, powered by hundreds of megawatts of electricity from the regional electric grid, and demanding unprecedented cooling water resources. Neutron damage will be intensified while the other characteristics will endure in any subsequent fusion reactor that attempts to generate enough electricity to exceed all the energy sinks identified herein.

When confronted by this reality, even the most starry-eyed energy planners may abandon fusion. Rather than heralding the dawn of a new energy era, it’s likely instead that ITER will perform a role analogous to that of the fission fast breeder reactor, whose blatant drawbacks mortally wounded another professed source of “limitless energy” and enabled the continued dominance of light-water reactors in the nuclear arena.[1]

He also mentioned in the article that the essential tritium is scarce, dangerous and difficult to handle, and that the quantities that exist have been produced by nuclear fission in heavy water reactors—the type used in Canada that are aging and not likely to be rebuilt. Fusion energy is supposed to replace the old, dirty technology of nuclear fission, but it turns out that fusion will depend on a steady supply of tritium generated by this outdated 20th century technology. It is hoped that tritium could be derived from lithium, which is available in seawater, but that plan is proving difficult also.

For further details about the problems looming ahead for ITER, read the article below, a translation of an article introducing a new book about ITER that has just been published in France. The proposal for a project such as ITER came out of the Reagan-Gorbachev summit in Geneva in 1985. For more on this early history of fusion energy research, see the 1992 article in The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists by Arthur Katz.[2]

ITER: International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor

Isabelle Bourboulon “’The fantasy of unlimited energy’: An Investigation of ITER, Experimental Nuclear Reactor in Provence,” Bastamag, 11 February 2020

A translation of

Isabelle Bourboulon « Le fantasme de l’énergie illimitée » : enquête sur Iter, réacteur nucléaire expérimental en Provence, Bastamag, 11 Février 2020

Translated by Dennis Riches

soleil trompeur-ITER
Isabelle Bourboulon, Deceptive Sun: ITER or the Fantasy of Unlimited Energy (Les Petits Matins, January 2020).

“A source of clean and almost inexhaustible energy” for its promoters, a scientific chimera coupled with a financial abyss for its critics. So what about ITER, this experimental nuclear reactor installed in Cadarache, in the Bouches-du-Rhône? This question is examined in the book Deceptive Sun: ITER or the Fantasy of Unlimited Energy, from which we publish these excerpts.

Much of the international community is associated with the ITER project. No less than thirty-five countries: Japan, China, South Korea, India, the United States, Russia and the 28 member states of the European Union (including Great Britain) plus Switzerland. Yet we hear very little about it. How is that possible? In its early days, ITER was described by its opponents as a “a grand, unnecessary and imposed project,” such as Notre-Dame-des-Landes airport, Bure nuclear waste landfill, or Sivens Dam, etc.

Let’s specify what ITER is. The promise is rather enticing: to provide “a clean and almost inexhaustible source of energy” thanks to a reaction in which the nuclei of atoms fuse and release energy. ITER’s ambition is to bring a plasma of deuterium and tritium, two isotopes of hydrogen, to a temperature of some 150 million degrees, in order to obtain ten times as much energy as what was used to produce it. This amounts to producing 500 megawatts (MW) of energy for six minutes by consuming only 50 megawatts of energy. This is nuclear fusion. It has nothing to do with our conventional nuclear power plants, whose principle is based on fission, or the splitting of nuclei in uranium atoms.

“ITER? Never heard of it.”

ITER, despite its excesses and considerable cost (estimated at between nineteen and sixty billion euros) [1] and its inadequacy to the needs of the local inhabitants and the general interest of the nation, has hardly provoked any major reactions. How can we understand this lack of interest in a pharaonic project imposed without real local consultation? How can we interpret the fact that the policy speeches in its favor—often betraying incompetence when they are not totally fanciful (Jean-Pierre Raffarin said in 2005, “ITER, it is like burning seawater” and “Thanks to the merger, France will become the Saudi Arabia of the 21st century”)—are barely noted, if not criticized, while the realization of this project in the very long term is endlessly postponed? The first fusion experiments will not take place before 2025 or even 2035.

A few years ago, I decided to investigate ITER. I happen to live about 40 kilometres from Cadarache (Bouches-du-Rhône), where the project is located. However, NIMBY” [2] was not my primary motivation, even though this proximity obviously facilitated my research.

To tell the truth, I wanted to understand the origins of this gigantic project which, apart from the elected representatives and the inhabitants of a limited area of the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur (PACA) region, not many people were informed about. Seen from Paris, in fact, the common reaction was: “ITER? Never heard of it.” By that I mean the reaction of the general public, not the scientists involved or the French and European policies that continue to regularly contribute to its exponentially growing budget.

Scientists challenge the prospect of an unlimited energy source

If the process mobilized by ITER is complex, the arguments of its promoters are simple: Fossil fuel energy is limited. Solar has not yet proven its profitability. Nuclear fission is polluting and poorly accepted. The two elements needed for fusion, deuterium and lithium to produce tritium, are abundant and easy to access. The risk of a major nuclear accident is zero, and the radioactive waste expected is nothing like that which comes from fission. In theory, fusion would therefore offer humanity the prospect of a virtually unlimited source of energy for millennia.

Most of these arguments are questionable… and challenged by renowned scientists, such as Pierre-Gilles de Gennes and Georges Charpak and, today, in France, Sébastien Balibar and Thierry Pierre [3], Glen A. Wurden and Daniel Jassby in the United States, the Japanese Nobel Prize in Physics Masatoshi Koshiba, and others who say the project is very unlikely to succeed, even if its aim is only experimental.

It is likely to fail only for these three scientific reasons: We do not yet know how to stabilize the plasmas heated at very high temperatures. We have not found the materials that would preserve the waterproofing of a reactor subjected to considerable irradiation, and we may not be able to control the manufacture of tritium from lithium.

Furthermore, there is other data that seriously casts doubt on the feasibility of nuclear fusion: Its high electricity consumption, in reality well above the 50 MW of the official discourse, tritium losses, whose releases to the environment are highly toxic, neutron activation [of materials that contact the fusion process], which produces large volumes of radioactive waste, and the need for cooling water, which, in a context of the scarcity of fresh water worldwide, makes the future deployment of industrial fusion reactors very uncertain.

Few jobs created compared to what was originally claimed

As for ITER’s record in terms of new jobs, it is far, far from the hopes raised at the time of the construction: 324 positions created in the department of Bouches-du-Rhône in the Vaucluse, sixty-two in the Alpes-Maritimes and twenty-two in the Alpes de Haute-Provence. However, when this issue came up in the initial debates there were to be thousands of direct and indirect jobs! This was the major argument for selling ITER to the public and justifying its pharaonic costs to European and French taxpayers.

Maurice Catin, founder of the Laboratory of Applied Development Economics (LEAD) at the University of Toulon, believes that ITER’s multiplier effects on regional economic activity have been exaggerated and will be of little importance in the long term. He adds that “the benefits appear to be very productively limited in any case, if the amounts are considered within the growth or size of the regional economy.”[4]

In Provence, the goose that would lay the golden egg has not kept its promises

Some elected officials also take a measured look at ITER’s economic effects. For example, economist Bernard Morel [5], former vice-president of the PACA region devoted to employment and economic development: “Here, people believed in the goose that lays the golden egg, but if you look at the number of direct and induced jobs linked to ITER, we see only around 2,000 to 2,600.” According to my interlocutor, the Office of the Atomic Energy Commissioner (CEA), in the 1970s there was a smarter policy by promoting the regional grouping of companies, such as in Aix-en-Provence, which has become a city of engineers. Such a phenomenon will not occur with ITER which rather “imports” its foreign scientists.

Christophe Castaner [6], who was at the time mayor of Forcalquier and regional councilor of PACA, also remembers the enthusiasm that accompanied the creation of ITER: “We celebrated when France won ITER. At the first steering committees, there was a real euphoria: all the local elected officials rushed to the prefecture and there were up to 350 or 400 of us at the meetings. The last time I participated, there were only twenty of us left… Much has been made of ITER. It was to have been the alpha and the omega of economic and human development of the PACA region. Very quickly, all of this euphoria deflated.”

While admitting he was attracted to this project that brings together scientists from all over the world in a joint research project, Christophe Castaner confided that at the time that he was dubious about ITER’s chances of success: “The project contains a number of uncertainties, and there are people who do not rule out that it could be shut down.”

The public debate took place… after the decision to build ITER

This is probably one of the most outrageous aspects of local political management of the project. It shows a total lack of consideration for citizens and residents. When I asked Christophe Castaner about this during our interview in 2013, he replied: “If the public debate had taken place beforehand, we knew that anti-nuclear activists would have mobilized. However, the existence of the French anti-nuclear movement was used by Japan to explain that France wasn’t a suitable candidate for the project. I sometimes took a stand and wondered why no one knew about it when my territory was impacted. I was surprised to hear that what I had written had been circulated by the Japanese to say, ‘See, local elected officials are against ITER.’ And so France assumed that if it organized the public debate beforehand, its candidacy would be ruined.”

Apart from the rather specious argument, this episode, narrated by one of the most prominent local actors in the region, shows that in reality the political parties have shown either total support, or relative indifference.

Only the Greens attended local meetings to express their negative views of ITER. Another telling fact is that the elected representatives of the territory have failed to develop a tool to anticipate or follow up on the impact of ITER. At one point, there was talk of creating a Public Interest Group (GIP), and an expert mission was mandated to study its feasibility. The GIP ITER was formed. The decree was signed, but when the time came to appoint a president, the local political opposition groups were fragmented and the GIP never came to be.

General interest?

Why does ITER continue to have the support of the governments of the countries participating in the project (note that the United States has already almost given up)? What interests explain its permanence against all odds? Does the inertia of a megaproject of this type make it impossible, once it is launched, to ask slightest question about its usefulness? As for nuclear power in general, in which France prides itself as being a leader, that era has passed, considering the choices of Germany and Switzerland to exit from nuclear.

At a time when in many countries’ civil societies are rising up, when the youngest are mobilizing massively for the climate, priorities should not be mistaken—in energy or in many other issues that concern the future of the planet.

Notes for the translation of the article by Isabelle Bourboulon (see notes for the rest of the article below these notes)

[1] The ITER program, which began in 1985, was valued at 5 billion euros in the run-up to the first plasma produced in 2016. Today, it is not expected until 2025, with full power in 2035. The total construction budget is estimated at 19 billion euros. In April 2018, the U.S. Department of Energy put the project at $65 billion, triple the budget announced by ITER’s international organization.

[2] “Not In My BackYard.”

[3] According to this physicist, a specialist in hot plasmas at the CNRS, with whom I have had several exchanges, his plasmician colleagues fall into two categories: “Those who do not want to know and those who know the reality of the project, but think that it is their duty to protect those who do not know or do not want to know.”

[4] Amaury Gersan, “Industrial Strategy and Employment: What If We Assess the impact of ITER?”, Mediaterre, November 3, 2012.

[5] Interview conducted on October 13, 2015.

[6] Interview conducted on January 14, 2013.

Notes for the introductory article

[1] Daniel Jassby, “ITER is a showcase … for the drawbacks of fusion energy,” Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, February 14, 2018. See also Jassby’s article from 2017: Daniel Jassby, “Fusion Reactors: Not What They’re Cracked Up To Be,” Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, April 19, 2017.

[2] Arthur Katz, “Is ITER the way?Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 1992, 48:8, 8-10, DOI: 10.1080/00963402.1992.11460107