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Non-nuclear energy

Overview of fusion R&D in Europe

Fission and radiation protection

Europe has been at the forefront of fusion R&D for the past 50 years. Fusion R&D has been part of the Community research programme since the inception of the EURATOM Treaty in 1957. All of the European Commission Research Framework Programmes have included funding for fusion projects.

The “study of fusion, with particular reference to the behaviour of ionised plasma under the action of electromagnetic forces” was part of the initial programme of EURATOM (European Atomic Energy Community) in 1958. The progress in understanding plasma physics and developing the required technology has been such that the programme is now fully focused on the long-term aim of demonstrating the feasibility of fusion power.

Research in Europe, carried out in the laboratories of the fusion ‘Associations’, has focused mainly on magnetic confinement techniques. In particular, research on several toroidal (doughnut-shaped) designs during the 1960s and related ‘tokamak’ technology in the 1970s led to the construction of the large Joint European Torus (JET), following a landmark decision by the European Council of Ministers in 1977. The essential objective of JET, built at Culham (near Oxford) in the UK, is to “study a plasma in conditions and dimensions approaching those needed in a thermonuclear reactor”. JET started operations in 1983 and is still the flagship of European fusion research enabling Europe to maintain a leading global position. JET reached all and went beyond many of the objective originally set out and, in 1997, set a world record when it produced 16 MW of fusion power. As the world’s largest tokamak to date, JET has been ideal as a model for plasma studies in near-reactor conditions.

JET has generated up to 16 MW of power

Inside the JET experiment

Other specialised magnetic devices are operated in laboratories throughout Europe. These contribute to the better understanding of fundamental physics of confined high temperature plasmas, as well as providing the data needed for the design of the next generation machines. There is also an extensive programme of work on the technological issues relating to fusion.

The long-term objective of fusion R&D in the EU Member States (and the countries associated to EURATOM) is to create power station prototypes demonstrating operational safety, environmental compatibility, and economic viability. The strategy to achieve this long-term objective includes the development of a larger experimental reactor (Next Step), followed by a demonstration reactor (DEMO), the study of improved concepts for future fusion devices, and accompanying physics and technology R&D activities which also involve European industry. In addition, socio-economic studies as well as safety and environmental investigations are being undertaken on the potential contribution of fusion to sustainable base-load power generation.

The current Next Step activities are focusing on preparations for a major experimental facility called ITER, which has a projected fusion power of 500 MW. ITER is a global project. In the current negotiations on the Joint implementation of ITER, Europe, Japan, Russia, the People’s Republic of China, the Republic of Korea and the United States of America are actively participating. ITER will be more than twice the size of JET in its linear dimensions (and about ten times larger in volume). It will be capable of producing significantly more fusion power for longer periods. This machine will make an important contribution towards demonstrating the feasibility of the plasma physics and fusion engineering of a potential power plant.

ITER will be the first fusion device to produce thermal energy approaching the level of commercial power stations. It will provide the next major step for the advancement of fusion science and for the development of fusion as a practical source of energy.