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Nuclear fusion: the long quest for the energy of the stars


In about 50 years, Earth's population will have reached 10 billion, more than double the current number of inhabitants. The growth in energy consumption will inevitably be steeper, given the enormous energy requirements of developing countries. In the long term, the problems of energy supply will be the most serious ever faced.
This explains why the objective of mastering nuclear fusion as a source of energy in the future justifies the substantial research endeavors that are being devoted to it. For four decades now, the implementation of the Community programme on fusion (with the JET facility in the United Kingdom as its flagship) has placed Europe in the lead as far as research in this area is concerned. Thanks to the scientific excellence it has acquired in this way, the European Union is now the leading partner in a vast programme of international scientific and technological cooperation - the ITER Project - in which Japan, Russia and Canada are also taking part.

Nuclear fusion is the most widespread and the most immense source of energy in the universe. It is produced in the cores of stars, including the one which heats our own planet, the sun. Under the effect of gravitational forces, the nuclei of light hydrogen atoms combine together to form heavier helium atoms, releasing enormous quantities of energy which sustain life on earth in the form of solar radiation.

Making the stellar dream come true on earth

The tremendous progress made in physics in the twentieth century rapidly gave rise to the "dream" to reproduce this prodigious and almost inexhaustible energy production mechanism on earth. Our ambition is to achieve controlled fusion on an industrial scale. The fusion of atoms of two hydrogen isotopes, deuterium and tritium, releases helium (a non-radioactive gas) and neutrons. Deuterium is a non-radioactive element which can be extracted from seawater (approximately 30 g/m3). Tritium is radioactive and relatively short-lived (12 years) and as a result practically non-existent in nature. It can easily be produced, however, through a neutron reaction with lithium, a quite common light metal found in the earth's crust and in oceans.

Producing such reactions poses enormous challenges, however. Fusion can only take place and be maintained in a plasma, which is well isolated from any contact with the physical walls of the reactor and pre-heated to extremely high temperatures, around 100 million degrees.

The scientific and technological challenge is extremely complex and has been occupying researchers for decades. Their persistence is understandable, however, since there are very good reasons for mastering this revolutionary energy source.

  • Firstly, it would counteract the threat to humanity represented by the depletion of fossil fuels.
  • Since there is no pollution from atmospheric emissions, fusion would dispel the threat of global climatic changes provoked by the massive use of fossil fuels.
  • Fusion has decisive advantages with regard to safety and the environment; a fusion reaction could never get out of control because it comes to a halt directly when the fuel is no longer injected. 
  • The main radioactive waste engendered would be confined to the materials constituting the internal structure of the plant (activated by neutrons produced from the fusion reactions), the replacement of which would be necessary at regular intervals, but the harmful activity of the plant's waste would not be a long-term burden for future generation.

Researchers have opted mainly for the approach known as magnetic confinement of the plasma. The Community invested in the construction of the largest experimental plant in the world, the "Joint European Torus" (JET), located at Abingdon in the United Kingdom, which started experiments in 1983.

In 1991, for the first time in a laboratory, fusion power of 1.7 MW was produced at JET for two seconds (using a mixture of deuterium and tritium, with approximately 10% tritium). This experiment was the first success of its kind in the world and showed that choosing this energy source in the future - even if it is still a long way off - can lead to convincing results.

... to the ITER world reactor

The experience acquired thanks to JET (80% financed by the Community budget) and facilities in other European laboratories in the course of the last decade have put Europe in the forefront of research on fusion by magnetic confinement and demonstrated the enormous benefits of cooperation at Community level. It has enabled European industry to develop leading knowledge for the construction and operation of such facilities, which are spread throughout the Member States.

Right now, the strategy of the European programme is based on the setting-up of the first experimental fusion reactor, known as ITER (International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor), capable of producing fusion power of 500 MW and of verifying the scientific and technological feasibility of this energy source. In order to realize this ambitious project, the construction of which will take ten years and cost an estimated €4 billion, the European Union has gone into partnership with Russia, Japan and Canada. The detailed design phase of ITER was completed in July 2001. ITER could start being built during the next Framework programme. The Final Design Report was approved by the ITER Parties (the EU, Japan and the Russian Federation) in 2001, marking the end of the "Engineering Design Activities" phase of the project. This was followed by preparations for negotiations concerning future joint implementation of ITER. Under the auspices of the IAEA, the first negotiating meeting took place in Moscow in June 2001. Canada submitted the first official bid to host ITER (other offers from European sites are in preparation) and the Parties’ delegations officially agreed their participation in the Coordinated Technical Activities to support the negotiations. On the technical level, an important milestone was the successful testing of prototype superconducting coils for the ITER magnet system. These were conceptually designed by European fusion laboratories and built with the participation of European industry, so demonstrating the technical and industrial feasibility of one of the most important components for a fusion reactor.




Programme: Nuclear Fusion Programme
Cordis Database For more information on this project,and the Fusion Programme,
go to the CORDIS Database Record RTD energy web site