World’s Largest Nuclear Fusion Project Starts Assembly
3 August 2020
The biggest nuclear fusion project in the world, known as the Iter Tokamak, has begun its five year long assembly phase. The £18.2bn facility is housed in Southern France, and once complete will generate the super-hot "plasma" needed for fusion power.
The organisation behind the project, Iter, is a collaboration between thirty-five nations including China, India, Japan, South Korea, Russia, US and members of the European Union. The UK is currently a member of the Iter project but possibly not for much longer, with the British government withdrawing from the Euratom treaty as part of Brexit.
Their aim is to safely produce fusion power – fusion is the nuclear reaction which powers the Sun and the stars, and Iter state “is a potential source of safe, non-carbon emitting and virtually limitless energy”.
Currently production of nuclear energy relies on fission – a process of splitting heavy chemical elements in order to produce lighter ones. Fusion on the other hand produces energy by joining two lighter elements to produce a heavier one – a process which releases huge amounts of energy, and very little radioactivity.
Plasma will be confined within the tokamak structure in order to control fusion reactions. This could begin as early as 2025, when the assembly phase is due to complete.
Professor Ian Chapman, chief executive of the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA) said “We hope to see first plasma in five years. That will only be a short plasma - lasting a few milliseconds - demonstrating all the magnets work. Then there will have to be a further stage of assembly of some of the other components... Nevertheless it's ticking off milestones on that path to demonstrating fusion at the commercial scale."
Of course not everyone believes in the success of fusion power, with sceptics arguing that the process is not commercially viable as scientists have struggled to get enough energy out of the reactions.
However the potential impact of this project could have significant implications for the production of clean energy, and thereby humanity’s battle against climate change.