Construction underway at ITER

They say fusion is 50 years away. There were those who also said it was 50 years away two decades ago.

Either way, this week marks a significant date in whatever history fusion energy might have. Digging has begun at the ITER (thermonuclear was a bad word, so there’s no longer an acronym) site in the south of France for the facility’s Tokamak building. A tokomak is a torus shaped magnetic confinement device which is necessary to withstand the temperatures associated with fusion that are so high, solid materials can’t hold them. As such, the building represents the future core of ITER.

The construction start comes after decades of research, bureaucracy, politics infused debates and massive cost increases. In fact, the estimated cost has already tripled. Yet, a contract agreement was reached in May of this year that paved the way for digging to finally begin – 25 years after efforts towards an international thermonuclear fusion reactor were first crafted.

From Fusion for Energy (EU branch of ITER):

Working is really picking up – the first excavation works for the complex Tokamak building on the ITER site have now started. This is a major step forward after the signature of contract… The start of the excavation works demonstrates that the F4E (aka Fusion for Energy) contribution of buildings is progressing full speed ahead and on schedule. In tandem, development of the tender design for all the other buildings that are part of F4E’s contribution to the ITER project is also being carried out.

While the ITER folks are showing optimism about the start of construction on the facility, even many physicists are skeptical of the reality of the thing.

MIT Professor Michael Driscoll told the Moscow Times:

“It’s possible that it can be done from the scientific point of view, but I think the economics are going to be quite troublesome.”The radiation damage inside the thermonuclear reactor — a machine that is also known as a “tokamak” — would be so huge it would require replacing the expensive surrounding first wall, which faces the high-temperature plasma, every few years, Driscoll said. Another problem is material for high-temperature-resistant superconducting wires to make magnets for the ITER, he said.

For more details of the construction check out ITER. Anatoly Medetsky of The Moscow times has a very in-depth recent piece about the issues facing the future of the technology and the ITER project as well.

Here’s to hoping physicists don’t dig anymore holes they can’t fill.

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