The Experimental ITER Nuclear Fusion Reactor: A Titanic and Energy-intensive Project (1/3)

by Celia Izoard, Reporterre, June 16, 2021

Le futur réacteur nucléaire Iter : un projet titanesque et énergivore

Translated by Dennis Riches

The original publication cites many links to French language sources. These have been removed in the English translation.

First of a three-part series: ITER, the Reality Behind the Promises of Nuclear Fusion

Part 2: Behind the ITER project, mountains of toxic metals and radioactive waste

Part 3: The Abyss at ITER Fails to Discourage Other Nuclear Fusion Projects

The experimental ITER nuclear fusion reactor, in the Bouches-du-Rhône, France, will consume as much energy as it produces. This huge project has also become much more expensive than expected: 44 billion euros.

ITER, the future international fusion reactor, is intended to be the showcase of nuclear fusion, whose qualities, according to its promoters, surpass those of fission, in use in conventional power plants. This investigation goes into the heart of an excessively costly project which will have disastrous health and environmental consequences.

In Cadarache, in the Bouches-du-Rhône, several thousand people are working on one of the largest construction sites in the world. The complex we enter with our guide, which will house the future ITER nuclear fusion reactor (International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor), weighs 440,000 tons, or more than forty Eiffel Towers. Men in construction helmets—red helmets for the chiefs, white helmets for the workers,” explains the guide—all equally tiny in this space, contemplate a colossal metal piece of 440 tons. It was shipped from China by boat, transported from Fos-sur-Mer on a barge specially built on the Étang de Berre, then transported by night convoy on 104 kilometers of fortified road aboard a giant truck with 352 wheels.

If members of an alien race came to ITER and observed the titanic resources mobilized for this project, they would probably conclude that a temple is being built for the worship of a god. Perhaps they would not be wrong. The name of this deity appears in large letters on the front page of the ITER Organization’s website: “An inexhaustible energy.”

Nuclear power plants built from the 1960s onwards promised to answer this same prayer, but by means of fission to trigger a chain reaction releasing neutrons by breaking uranium nuclei. But at ITER, they tell you quite clearly that nuclear fission is a dead-end. Uranium must be extracted to power the reactors. Tens of thousands of tons of radioactive waste must be managed for thousands of years, and with a loss of cooling, the chain reaction can get a little out of hand, as at Fukushima. “We don’t want all that anymore,”says Joëlle Elbez-Uzan, ITER’s head of safety and the environment.

With nuclear fusion, we are assured, all these problems would be overcome. There is very little fuel, very little waste, and no risk of runaway disasters. With deuterium (extracted from seawater) and only a few kilos of radioactive tritium, heated to between 150 and 200 million degrees Celsius (ten times the temperature of the center of the sun), one can create a plasma resulting from the fusion of atoms and produce tremendous heat [1]. “Fusion can generate four times more energy per kilo of fuel than fission, and nearly 4 million times more energy than burning oil or coal,” the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) promises on the first page of its bulletin published in May 2021.

Multiply the energy tenfold? Really?

So far, this is nothing new. This is the principle of the thermonuclear bomb (or H-bomb). Physicists explained it in 1957, shortly after the international conference “Atoms for Peace,” which launched this research. The purpose of a thermonuclear fusion reactor is to “domesticate the energy of the H-bomb” [2].

Instead of giving free rein to the destructive heat of neutrons, they will try to confine this plasma in gigantic magnetic fields. Enclosed in this tokamak, a kind of magnetic bottle invented by Russian physicists, the plasma, brought to very high temperature as previously explained, would produce helium nuclei, and the fusion reaction would be sustained while releasing heat. One could then recover the excess heat created by the reaction and convert it into electric current.

So far, nuclear fusion has only been achieved for a few seconds, due to the lack of a tokamak large enough to confine the energy [3]. As no country could have borne the costs of such a project alone, the experiment carried out in Cadarache brings together thirty-five countries (European Union countries, the United States, China, Russia, Switzerland, England, Japan, India and South Korea), all of which contribute to its financing. After fifteen years of work and research, the assembly of the ITER tokamak—a gigantic metal enclosure 73 meters high—began in the summer of 2020. The objective is to be able to confine a plasma for four minutes in order to check whether the helium nuclei manage to maintain the nuclear fusion reaction.

Due to its experimental purpose, ITER is not connected to turbines and will not produce electricity. The first plasma shots with deuterium and tritium will not begin until 2035, once the machine has been assembled and its stability and tightness have been tested. A prototype reactor, Demo, is to be built around 2050, then a whole nuclear fusion sector will be built “by 2070,” Joëlle Elbez-Uzan cautiously believes. But ITER already intends to demonstrate that with its self-sustaining plasma, the reactor will generate “the first net energy production in the history of fusion” by creating “an amplification of a factor of 10. An input of 50 megawatts (MW) will produce 500 megawatts of output.” This is the first thing you are taught about ITER. With very little fuel and waste, they will increase the energy tenfold.

A zero energy balance

The problem is that this is wrong. Or, at least, this is only very partially true. Steven B. Krivit, a US science journalist specializing in nuclear fusion, devoted an investigation to it, then a film. At the time of the plasma shots, he explains, to produce these 50 MW of heat that will be injected into the tokamak, taking into account all the infrastructure present on the site, heating systems and energy losses, ITER will consume between 300 and 500 MW. That’s almost as much as the energy it’s supposed to produce. And apart from the embodied energy of the reactor, that is to say the energy needed to produce all these components, to transport them, etc., we are simply talking here about the electrical power that ITER will take from the existing electricity grid.

“This reactor is designed to produce fusion particles—neutrons and helium—that have ten times as much power as what is injected into the fuel to create these particles,” explains Steven B. Krivit, “The fusion particles do not to produce ten times the power consumed by the reactor overall.” If the ITER experiment worked, and it was connected to the electricity grid, the energy balance would be zero. This is a “strategic omission,” according to Krivit, which considerably weakens the prospect of producing electricity by nuclear fusion.

This subtle distinction between the amount of energy consumed to initiate the reaction and the amount of energy consumed by the reactor (such as its giant cryogenic plant) is never explained to the public or even, presumably, to ITER staff. When we corrected Joëlle Elbez-Uzan during our interview on the fact that the amplification factor by ten concerns only the reaction, and not the total energy consumed by ITER, the director of safety exclaimed, perplexed: “Are you kidding me?”

Asked the same day about ITER’s total power consumption, Laban Coblentz, director of communications, replied that he did not know. After a written request, fifteen days of waiting, and several reminders, figures confirming those of Steven B. Krivit were provided, but accompanied by a long dissertation on the need to “place these answers in the context of ITER’s mission.” Its energy consumption is to be weighed against “the enormous potential of fusion to eliminate more than a century of geopolitical tensions and conflicts related to access to fossil resources.” Part of the power consumed by ITER is due to “the large number of diagnostic tools aimed at an exhaustive analysis of plasma and used to optimize the design of future machines.” Besides, it is impossible to estimate the power consumption precisely because “it will depend on the precise configuration of the systems used for each experiment.”

This admission of ignorance is all the more surprising since at the time of the public debate on ITER in 2006, the team seemed perfectly capable of providing an estimate. The minutes of the meeting organized in Salon-de-Provence by the National Commission for Public Debate states: “When the machine is in standby mode, it will consume 120 megawatts in order to supply the auxiliaries. During the experiments, the power consumed […] will then reach 620 MW in order to heat the plasma, then decrease to 450 MW during the main phase of the experiment (370 seconds), and will recover to 120 MW. During the peak power of 620 MW, compensation systems will limit the impact of ITER on the regional electricity grid [4].” And for good reason! 620 MW is a colossal amount of electricity, since the entire Toulouse urban area uses nearly 500 MW. Year-round, we learn in one of the notebooks intended for public debate, ITER will consume 600 GWh [5], which corresponds to the supply of a city of 145,000 inhabitants, such as Aix-en-Provence or Le Mans.

€4.5 billion to €44 billion

Obviously, the leaders of the ITER Organization carefully avoid mentioning these details, for fear of dampening the enthusiasm of the politicians who finance this colossal project. Summing up the situation, journalist Steven B. Krivit says, “A small group of physicists representing the scientific community of nuclear fusion researchers has misinformed the public in order to ensure that its public funding is maintained.” To convince the political leaders, it was necessary at least to promise an energy abundance comparable to the biblical miracle of feeding the 5,000. “This is the strong argument,” says Thiéry Pierre, a fusion plasma physicist at the CNRS, who is himself very skeptical about the possibility of confining a thermonuclear plasma. Imagine scientists, crowned with the prestige of theoretical physics, explaining to Jacques Chirac that you can multiply energy output by ten. He wrote the cheque right away!

Today, the players in the project have all the less interest in disappointing their interlocutors as the amounts continue to double. In 2000, ITER was expected to cost EUR 4.5 billion. In 2006, the year of the ratification of the ITER Agreement by Jacques Chirac, the total cost (construction, operation and dismantling) was estimated at 10 billion euros. The ITER Organization is announcing today 22 billion euros but, acknowledges Laban Coblentz, “this excludes operating costs and decommissioning.”

Moreover, it is all the more misleading to put the cost of the project at 22 billion euros since, according to the ITER Agreement, the European Union contributes to the project to the tune of 45.6% of the total amount, but it has allocated 20 billion euros until 2035. According to this agreement, the other six partner countries contribute to the rest of the cost through in-kind contributions. The supply of all these unique components of very high technology are always paid for with public funds. The construction cost would therefore be, according to Thiéry Pierre, close to “44 billion euros,” which led the physicist to send an information note to the management of the National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS), asking to put an end to this disinformation “which risks permanently discrediting plasma physics.”

Finally, by adding the billions needed to carry out the experiments and treat a colossal volume of dismantling waste, the US Department of Energy has perhaps been more realistic in estimating the total cost of ITER at $65 billion (about €54 billion). Apart from the International Space Station, it is the most expensive scientific experiment in human history.

Notes

[1] The fusion pursued at ITER is called thermonuclear. Nuclei are heated and accelerated to make them cross the electrostatic repulsion force so that they will fuse, a process which emits very energetic neutrons. Heating is done during different stages. 1. Gaseous fuel is introduced into the tokamak, then electricity passes into the large central magnet, which itself sends a current into the gas. This is ohmic heating, which works on the principle of resistance and makes it possible to reach a temperature of 20 million degrees Celsius. 2. Two complementary heating techniques are introduced to reach a temperature of 150 million degrees. Neutral particles are then injected into the plasma, giving it energy, activating two sources of high-frequency electromagnetic waves.

[2] Nuclear Fusion: Limitless Energy, « Fusion nucléaire : l’énergie à profusion », La méthode scientifique, France Culture, 12 juin 2019.

[3] For example, in these tokamak projects: JET in England and in the one operated by the CEA in Cadarache, France. There have been recently announced projects in Korea (KSTAR) and China (East).

[4] Report on the public debate on ITER in Provence, National Debate Commission, 2006. Compte rendu du débat public sur Iter en Provence, Commission nationale du débat public, 2006, p. 43.

[5] ITER in Provence, National Debate Commission, Book 1, 2006, p. 23. Iter en Provence, Commission nationale du débat public, Cahier 1, 2006, p. 23.