by Celia Izoard, Reporterre, June 18, 2021
Translated by Dennis Riches
The original publication cites many links to French language sources. These have been removed in the English translation.
Fire, seismic risk, failing integrity of components… Several dangers could lead to the failure of the ITER project. Yet work on nuclear fusion continues as states and magnates in the tech and energy industries finance research and projects.
ITER wants to be the showcase of nuclear fusion, whose qualities, according to its promoters, surpass those of the fission reactors used in conventional nuclear power plants. This investigation looks at the heart of a massive project that will have disastrous health and environmental consequences.
Part 3 of a three-part series: ITER, the Reality Behind the Promises of Nuclear Fusion
Touting the launch of the ITER assembly, in Saint-Paul-lez-Durance (Bouches-du-Rhône) in July 2020, as a “non-polluting, decarbonized, safe and practically waste-free energy,” Emmanuel Macron summed up the construction of the largest nuclear fusion reactor of all time: “ITER is precisely an act of confidence in the future.” This is the same type of speech that journalist Isabelle Bourboulon, who lives near Manosque, heard during her book about ITER published in 2020: “My interlocutors said ‘ITER, I believe in it’, as if it were an act of faith.” Indeed, the promises of this reactor, the construction cost of which exceeds EUR 40 billion, are now a matter of faith. No fusion reactor has so far produced a single kilowatt-hour (kWh) of electricity, and in the best case scenario, if the experiment at ITER were to work, the power obtained would remain equivalent to that required by the fusion reactor installations themselves. But other factors make this experiment particularly risky.
First of all, it is very difficult to predict how this plasma will behave in a nuclear fusion reaction of more than 150 million degrees Celsius (the temperature of the center of the sun is 15 million degrees). In this “fourth state”, matter is subject to turbulence which, despite much research on it, remains unpredictable. From the first plasma shot, the tokamak—this 23,000-tonne enclosure whose tightness must be absolute and which required the assembly of 1 million components “to the millimetre”—could be punctured by the 15 million amperes that must be circulated in the vacuum chamber to confine the plasma.
The divertor is one of its critical components, a kind of 540-ton ashtray made of tungsten to evacuate heat, but Peter Rindt explains in a recent video that it could melt. He is a fusion researcher at the Eindhoven University of Technology (The Netherlands) who is in charge of designing the future prototype demo reactor, which is to be built around 2050. If the plasma is destabilized, it can be destroyed in a millisecond. An billion-dollar investment would vanish into thin air.” Each of these damages would require a review of the entire waterproofing of the structure. But the radioactivity will be such that no human will be able to intervene. It will be necessary to replace the parts and plug the leaks only with robots and remote controlled devices.
With ITER located on the Middle Durance seismic fault, the French state, determined to win the bid to build the reactor on its soil, has funded large-scale seismic devices to protect the huge reactor. According to studies conducted by the Commissariat à l’énergie atomique et aux énergies alternatives (CEA), “the amount of metal reinforcement in reinforced concrete is such that buildings that would deform slightly during the earthquake would return to their initial position as soon as the earthquake was over. The containment function would still be intact.” However, it is difficult to imagine that such a precise machine can be shaken and recover impeccably to the millimeter. It could become unusable for years to come, and the damage there too would amount to tens of billions of euros.
“We are told about protection against earthquakes or a plane crash on the facility, but the main danger here is fire.” This is what they say in the ITER canteen at lunchtime. Like the nearby nuclear site, the CEA-Cadarache, ITER is located in the middle of a pine and oak forest on the borders of the Bouches-du-Rhône, the Var, the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence and the Vaucluse, in the region of France (Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur) most threatened by fires. In 2017, devastating fires reached the A51 motorway, which serves ITER. What will fire hazards be like in 2035 once the machine is assembled and its stability and tightness have been tested?
“A 50-metre-wide strip of vegetation has been cleared to protect the site,” Joëlle Elbez-Uzan, director of security at ITER, told Reporterre. “If a fire would to the tokamak, it would take two hours to reach his walls, which are at least 60 centimeters thick.” The danger is real and, in view of the mega-fires to come, the dispersion of radioactive tritium and beryllium dust cannot be ruled out, nor can the need for evacuation of the population.
All these uncertainties call into question whether this 40-billion-euro installation is secure. “All we can say,” the ITER Organization replies, “is that standard insurance coverage for construction risk and civil liability have obtained.” But by whom? A private company would not bear such a risk. The ITER Organization, entirely financed by public funds, refuses to say more.
A final detail: it is likely that in 2035, ITER will not be able to operate for part of the year. To dissipate the enormous heat produced by the thermonuclear reactions, the Société du canal de Provence will provide ITER annually with between 1.7 and 3 million cubic meters of water, taken from the Sainte-Croix dam in the Verdon, according to an internal source under cover of anonymity. This is the equivalent of the annual consumption of 14,000 to 25,000 homes, and two-thirds of this cooling water will be evaporated.
In 2006, at the time of the public debate on ITER, the announced withdrawals were “One million cubic meters of water per year”, or two to three times less than the figure above. In theory, prefectural drought decrees could force ITER, like any industrial establishment, to reduce its withdrawals and therefore to cease its experiments on the tokamak during these periods. In 2035, we can imagine that, due to climate change, these orders will be frequent, unless an exceptional new device allows the site to cool experimental thermonuclear plasmas at times when individuals will no longer be allowed to water their garden.
A colossus with feet of clay, the ITER program could therefore result in a gigantic mess, with any hazard resulting in damage and costs proportional to the size of the machine. But paradoxically, even if ITER turned out to be a fiasco, it might not affect the future of nuclear fusion. “ITER’s purpose is not only to produce the first self-sustaining nuclear fusion plasma,” explains Laban Coblentz, Director of Communications. “It’s about building the know-how and industrial capabilities of fusion around the world.”
In the thirty-five member countries of the ITER Organization, teams of researchers have been working for almost twenty years on all aspects of nuclear fusion, from plasma turbulence to the design of ultra-resistant alloys. To produce all the non-standard components of the reactor, the dozens of industrial groups that won the tenders—Air Liquide, Veolia, Vinci, Dassault, Engie, Mitsubishi, Hyundai, etc.—invested for years in prototypes, processes and production capacities. They will seek to make them profitable by supporting the creation of a commercial reactor sector.
“Whether ITER is the first to carry out fusion or not, everyone agrees that it was the construction of this reactor, long considered impossible, that revived the work on fusion”, notes L’Usine Nouvelle . Because not only has the production of ITER’s components opened up industrial sectors, but the project has given rise to countless scientific publications on the many facets of thermonuclear fusion to which the thirty-five Member States of ITER have access.
As a result, thanks to the work carried out in public research for many years, fusion energy start-ups have taken off. Since the beginning of the 2010s, these start-ups have joined the race based on the Elon Musk model of space conquest. Funded by Morgan Stanley, Alphabet (Google) and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, the US company Tri Alpha Energy raised $750 million by promising financiers that it would be able to reach 300 million degrees Celsius by colliding two thermonuclear plasmas and do this without tritium one day by reacting protons with boron.
With money from Jeff Bezos (Amazon), the Canadian company General Fusion is developing a reactor halfway between magnetic fusion and inertial fusion equipped with a liquid metal wall (lithium-lead) to convert heat. Commonwealth Fusion Systems, part of a team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and supported by Bill Gates, has raised $200 million to create a tokamak reactor that it promises is more compact than ITER thanks to 500 kilometers of rare earth superconducting magnets (yttrium-barium).
Of the 119 experimental fusion facilities built or planned worldwide, 22 are now privately owned. In May 2021, these companies, often based in university laboratories, have raised a total of $2 billion. Tech tycoons and venture capital funds are not the only ones to finance them. Oil and gas companies have also joined the game. The oil giants Chevron, Eni and Equinor have invested in Commonwealth Fusion Systems. Zap Energy is perfecting the Z Machine in New Mexico—a pulsed X-ray generator capable of reaching several billion degrees Celsius. On the board “former fossil industry executives rub shoulders with experts in nuclear research and plasma physics,” says Green Tech Media. In this way, the oil companies ensure that, in the event that nuclear fusion ever produces electricity, they will continue to dominate the energy market.
Basically, the role of the ITER program is to make a fusion a self-fulfilling prophecy. ITER makes announcements on the colossal energy production that plasma physicists have promised, then political leaders obtain the financing for these gigantic reactors. This public support then convinces investment funds to increase the valuation of start-ups. Without any guarantee of success, a nuclear fusion sector is being set up that promises decarbonized energy in a few decades’ time. However, it is already swallowing up enormous amounts of metals and energy (see Part 2), giving the sector a footprint that will only accelerate global warming and the poisoning of the environment.
 As explained by Jean Jacquinot and Robert Arnoux in Iter: le chemin des étoiles ? page 30 (ITER: The Path of the Stars?): The plasma state is a state of matter, just like the solid state, the liquid state or the gaseous state, although there is no abrupt transition from one of these states to plasma or vice versa. This fourth state of matter manifests itself when, by dint of being shocked, projected at an increasing speed into each other, electrons leave the orbit that held them around the nucleus of the atom. The sun and stars are plasmas, and on Earth, the state of plasma manifests itself in neon tubes, lightning and the aurora borealis.
 Peter Rindt, « The potential of 3D-printed liquid-metal heat shields for fusion reactors », April 2021.
 B.N. Kolbasov, V.I. Khripunov, A.Yu. Biryukov, Institut Kurchatov (Moscow), Proceedings of the 11th IEA International Workshop on beryllium technology, Barcelona, 2013, p. 108.
 Members of ITER : European Union, China, Russia, Switzerland, United Kingdom, Japan, India et South Korea.
 Instead of confining a plasma in a magnetic field, inertial fusion consists of compressing it into “microbeads” thanks to very brief and very intense energy pulses (as at the Megajoule Laser laboratory in Bordeaux). The technique is very similar to one that is used to make nuclear weapons and entails proliferation risks.
 Bulletin of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), May 2021, p. 22.
 Bulletin of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), May 2021, p.24.