ITER and fusion energy research – your questions answered
European Commission - MEMO/05/226 28/06/2005
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Brussels, 28 June 2005
Today in Moscow the Six Parties participating in the ITER project decided to build this project in Cadarache in Southern France. This agreement heralds the end of a deadlock between two alternative sites for the reactor and is an important milestone in the move towards establishing fusion as a sustainable source of energy production. This background note aims to answer major questions on the agreement reached today, and the project in general.
What is ITER?
ITER is an experimental reactor which will reproduce the physical reaction - fusion - that occurs in the sun and stars. Existing experiments have already shown that it is possible to replicate this process on Earth. ITER aims to do this at a scale and in conditions that will demonstrate the scientific and technological feasibility of fusion as an energy source.
What is fusion?
When the nuclei of light atoms come together at very high temperatures, they fuse and this produces enormous amounts of energy. In the core of the sun or a star, the huge gravitational pressure allows this to happen at temperatures of around 10 million degrees Celsius.
At the much lower pressures that we can produce on Earth, temperatures to produce fusion need to be much higher – above 100 million degrees Celsius. To reach these temperatures there must first be powerful heating, and thermal losses must be minimised by keeping the hot fuel particles away from the walls of the container. This is achieved by creating a magnetic “cage” made by strong magnetic fields, which prevent the particles from escaping. The development of the science and technology involved in this process is the basis of the European fusion programme.
What are the attractions of fusion as an energy source?
The key advantages are:
Is fusion safe?
A fusion reactor is like a gas burner – the fuel which is injected into the system is burnt off. There is very little fuel in the reaction chamber at any given moment (about 1g in a volume of 1000 m3) and if the fuel supply is interrupted, the reactions only continue for a few seconds. Any malfunction of the device would cause the reactor to cool and the reactions would stop.
The basic fuels - deuterium and lithium – and the reaction product - helium - are not radioactive. The intermediate fuel – tritium – is radioactive and decays very quickly, producing a very low energy electron (Beta radiation). In air, this electron can only travel a few millimetres and cannot even penetrate a piece of paper Nevertheless, tritium would be harmful if it entered the body, so the facility will have very thorough safety facilities and procedures for the handling and storage of tritium. As the tritium is produced in the reactor chamber itself, there are no issues regarding the transport of radio-active materials.
Extensive safety and environmental studies have led to the conclusion that a fusion reactor could be designed in such a way to ensure that any in-plant incident would not require the evacuation of the local population.
What will be the environmental impact of fusion energy?
The energy generated by the fusion reactions will be used for the same purposes as current sources of energy, such as generation of electricity, heat for industrial use or the production of hydrogen.
The fuel consumption of a fusion power station will be extremely low. A 1 GW fusion plant will need about 100 Kg of deuterium and 3 tons of natural lithium to operate for a whole year, generating about 7 billion kWh, with no greenhouse gas or other polluting emissions. To generate the same energy, a coal-fired power plan (without carbon sequestration) requires about 1.5 million tons of fuel and produces about 4-5 million tons of CO2.
The neutrons generated by the fusion reaction cause radio-activity in the materials surrounding the reaction – so the walls of the container etc. A careful choice of the materials for these components will allow them to be released from regulatory control and possibly recycled about 100 years after the power plant stop operating. Waste from fusion plants will not be a burden for future generations.
Who are the Six Parties to ITER?
The Six international Parties that are co-operating to develop ITER are: China, EU, Japan, Russia, South Korea, and the United States. The negotiations take place under the auspices of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Canada was also a party to the negotiations, but withdrew in December 2003.
What was decided in Moscow on 28 June and what happens next?
At the Moscow meeting the Six Parties settled the outstanding issue of the site of ITER. This means that ITER will be built at the site proposed by the EU, Cadarache in Southern France. The negotiations had been deadlocked since December 2003 on this issue of the site, preventing the parties making further progress in the technical negotiations relating to the project itself. Now that this issue has been resolved, the technical work can be carried out to finalise the agreement. It is hoped that it will be possible for all parties to initial the text of the agreement by the end of this year, thereby allowing for the start of construction by the end of 2005.
Why is it so important to undertake this project with all Six international Parties?
It is clearly a very important step to bring together the most advanced nations in the world to co-operate in the development of a major potential new technology. The challenges of the ITER project require the best technological and scientific expertise, which can best be harnessed by pooling resources globally. By working together, the Six parties are committing themselves to a global response to a global challenge – assuring sustainable energy resources. By ensuring the best possible knowledge is put into ITER, it will be all the more likely that a viable energy source will emerge at the end of the project.
Will other countries be able to participate?
Since its very beginning, development of ITER has taken place under the auspices of the United Nations International Atomic Energy Authority. The ITER Agreement, once finalised, will be open for accession by or co-operation with other countries who have demonstrated a capacity for specific technologies and knowledge and are ready to contribute to the project.
How much will ITER cost?
ITER construction costs are estimated at 4.57B€ (at 2000 prices), to be spread over about ten years. Estimated total operating costs over the expected operational lifetime of about twenty years are of a similar order.
How will ITER be financed?
The ITER project will be undertaken by the ITER Organisation established by the ITER Agreement. The members of the Organisation will bear the costs of ITER. With respect o the construction of the ITER device, most of the components will be contributed by the members in kind (i.e. the components themselves, rather than the financing for them). For the European Union, a new Joint Undertaking will be established in Spain through which contributions (in cash and in kind) will be provided to the ITER Organisation
The EU and France – will contribute 50% of the construction costs and the other five parties will each contribute 10%.
Why is Cadarache the best site for ITER?
Cadarache, the site proposed by the EU, was supported for a number of reasons:
The site satisfies all the technical requirements specified by the international team in charge of the design of ITER.
Cadarache already hosts the world’s largest super-conducting fusion experiment Tore-Supra at the CEA Cadarache Research Centre, one of the biggest civil nuclear research centres in Europe. Therefore the Cadarache site has existing technical support facilities and expertise, which significantly reduce the risks associated with the construction of a project such as ITER.
France has well-established regulations for licensing ground-breaking “first of a kind” facilities such as ITER.
Cadarache is situated close to the second largest city in France, with associated social, cultural industrial and academic infrastructure, an agreeable climate and pleasant natural environment. These will help attract the brightest and best scientists and engineers from around the world to the ITER project.
What are the terms of the agreement reached with Japan on the roles of host and non-host?
EU and Japan have reached an agreement on a privileged partnership in which both partners will be able to develop a leading role in taking fusion energy into the future. This partnership looks beyond the ITER project to put it in the context of a Broader Approach to fusion energy development. ITER as a project is not enough to make fusion energy a commercially viable source of energy for the future. The Broader Approach will ensure other supporting research is carried out. The list of potential Broader Approach projects has been identified by all six ITER parties.
The terms of the agreement are:
How will the EU benefit from hosting ITER?
By hosting ITER, the EU will maintain its position at the forefront of fusion research. The existence of such a high technology, cutting edge research facility in the EU will have considerable benefits for EU industry. We have seen from past experiments in this field that participation in such projects has kept the best and brightest scientists in Europe, who have gone on to develop highly innovative projects that bring considerable value for the companies for which they work and EU industry in general.
For more information on ITER, go to www.iter.org
For more information on ITER at Cadarache, go to www.itercad.org