ITER emerges from the earth

Start-up of the ITER site in Cadarache. © ITER
Start-up of the ITER site in Cadarache.© ITER

It is customary, in the case of major public works, to make sure that certain sites do not contain any archaeological treasures. From left to right: preparatory explorations (a), archaeological digs around a former glassworks (b) and a tomb of a late antique necropolis (c) maintenance along a minor road where the hydraulic networks are installed for managing the water coming from the ITER site. © ITER
It is customary, in the case of major public works, to make sure that certain sites do not contain any archaeological treasures. From left to right: preparatory explorations (a), archaeological digs around a former glassworks (b) and a tomb of a late antique necropolis (c) maintenance along a minor road where the hydraulic networks are installed for managing the water coming from the ITER site. © ITER

The most ambitious international scientific cooperation project in history is taking shape in the south of France. We take a look at an extraordinary technological and institutional device.

It is a vast flat rectangle over a kilometre long and some 500 metres wide, the size of 60 soccer pitches. From the air it resembles a huge yellow gash cut out of the forest that stretches to the shores of the Medi terranean, 60 km away. We are in Cadarache, in the south of France, at the site that over the next decade will see the construction of ITER (International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor), the biggest international scientific device in the world. At the centre of the plot, levelled out to millimetre precision by an army of mechanical diggers, a gaping hole is ready to receive the reactor.

100 million degrees

The aim of ITER is to check the “scientific and technical feasibility of nuclear fusion as a new energy source.” In practice, this means maintaining over 400 seconds a fusion reaction at a temperature of close to 100 million degrees, in 840 m3 of plasma (1) (an ionised gas), to arrive at a power 30 times greater than ever achieved by the most powerful reactor to date, JET. The environment will be packed with sensors to obtain a maximum of experimental data that, a few decades from now, will make it possible to build an industrial reactor. This reactor would be able to produce abundant quantities of clean energy, as fusion consumes very little matter and, above all, creates virtually no radio active waste.

The technological challenge is nevertheless huge: our understanding of how plasmas behave at such staggering temperatures is anything but complete and the materials are often subject to impressive constraints, in particular in terms of neutron bombardment. It is a challenge currently beyond the capacity of any one country. This is why, in 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev proposed to Ronald Reagan that they should work together on nuclear fusion. After many twists and turns, it is this proposal that resulted in the present ITER project, piloted from the start by the EU and now including seven partners: Europe, the United States, China, Russia, India, Japan and Korea. Together these partners represent more than half the world’s population and the most markedly contrasting cultures. What is more, ITER has every chance of further expanding as a number of nations have expressed their interest in participating as ‘associated countries.’

“Previously, we were already very proud at having succeeded in building an international project such as the LHC (Large Hadron Collider) in Geneva, but that only involves the governing bodies of the European partners. With ITER we are talking about much larger sums of money and, most importantly, a truly global project!” says Neil Calder, head of communication at ITER, who himself spent many years working at CERN (European Organization for Nuclear Research), the body responsible for the LHC. Physicist Michel Chatelier, who for a long time managed Tore Supra, ITER’s little brother, believes that to be successful, the project “will require as much capacity for human and organisational innovation as scientific capacity.”

Global giant

So how will this extraordinary global device work? The project, initially costed at €10 billion (approximately €5 billion to build it and €5 billion to operate it), is scheduled to be spread over 35 years: 10 years to build it, 20 years for the experimentation, and five years to dismantle it. Europe is providing 45 % of the funding, the balance being shared equally between the other partners. The project’s governing body, known as ITER Organization, is headed by the ITER Council that is made up of around 100 top-level scientists and political representatives from each of the partner countries. This ITER Council meets twice yearly to take major decisions. Kaname Ikeda of Japan is head of ITER Organization.

One of ITER’s unique features is the importance of the concept of contributions in kind. Each partner is responsible for supplying a part of the reactor components, for the purpose of which seven domestic agencies have been set up. “But, in a way, we chose to do this in the most inefficient way possible,” says Neil Calder with a smile. Most of the components are in fact the result of cooperation between three or four domestic agencies, the idea being to share the technological learning process as much as possible. In some cases each agency submits which is the best. In other cases each contributes its skills and an appropriate project is then developed. The desire to circulate knowledge therefore takes precedence over the desire to optimise the effort, which is not without merit.

This method of task sharing of course implies a huge amount of interaction. The Cadarache site is the scene of constant videoconferences, incoming and outgoing e-mails, and a steady stream of arrivals and departures. But things are moving forward and the prototypes of parts that arrive for evaluation are already starting to fill the building aisles. The European agency, known as Fusion for Energy (F4E), is of course the biggest as Europe is financing 45 % of the project. It is involved in making nearly all the reactor components, especially the giant superconducting coils. Its headquarters in Barcelona is likely to have a staff of about 300 within the next year or two.

Plural construction identity

The day-to-day reality of being involved in such a project is fascinating. When Kaname Ikeda arrived in Cadarache in 2007, with a team of half a dozen people, there was almost nothing there. The prefabricated buildings progressively emerged from the earth as the site developed to accommodate the first 100 employees over the next year. Today that number has increased to 300, still housed in prefabricated buildings while awaiting the permanent buildings to be provided by the French over the next two to three years. Soon there will be 1 000 people working at ITER, with about 30 nationalities represented. “Most of the international organisations, the ESA (European Space Agency) or CERN, for example, are now over 30 years old and have a genuine common culture, whereas we still have to build our identity,” stresses Neil Calder. “We bring together countries that have never worked together before and people who do not have the same dress codes, the same relationship to the hierarchy or work, who do not conduct meetings in the same way, who express themselves differently. We are going to have to invent a model in which everybody can feel comfortable and work efficiently. That is a formidable challenge!”

Fortunately, the ITER participants are bound by the belief that they are working on a mission of huge importance to society, at a time when the greenhouse effect and the energy crisis are bringing ever more perilous dangers for mankind. It is this conviction that should enable them to overcome the inevitable crises and difficulties. “In a common project such as this,” notes Michel Chatelier, “you cannot hope to have made the right choices at first attempt. You must be able to make changes along the way.” What is more, negotiations are continuing on many aspects of ITER governance. The way of managing intellectual property remains largely to be defined, while the issue of the right to patent the technologies generated will certainly be hotly debated. It is a context that Neil Calder sums up by remarking “at root, the project is still in its adolescence, with all the difficulties that the move to maturity will bring.” It is a difficult stage in ITER’s development, but one marked by youthful enthusiasm.

Yves Sciama

  1. See “On the edge of matter” , Research*eu 61.


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Caring for the new arrivals

In order to better welcome personnel arriving at the site, ITER-France, a subsidiary of the CEA – Atomic Energy Commission (FR) – that is responsible for preparing the site, has opened the Welcome Office. This assists new arrivals in finding accommodation, completing the administrative formalities (driving licences, residence permits, etc.) and also offers French lessons for those who are interested. The office recently hired a team to present the cultural specificities of the different participating countries as a means of improving cohabitation while avoiding any faux pas and misunderstandings. An international school for the site employees has already opened its doors. Once the site is operating at full capacity this should have around 1 000 pupils aged between 5 and 18 and pay particular attention to ensuring that they are able to easily return to their national education system at any time.