Our Visit to ITER in the South of France

On September 22 Marilyn, Eric, and I visited ITER, the International Tokamak Experimental Reactor in Saint-Paul-lez-Durance, France, about 45 minutes from Aix-en-Provence. We took the TGV from Paris to Aix-en-Provence.

Our tour started with a talk by Akko Maas who gave a great presentation on fusion. He talked about building ITER. The complexity of the project and the large international team both present challenges. He also discussed the advantages of fusion in comparison to wind and solar. He noted that while a fusion reactor would have some waste, both wind and solar, when decommissioned, have waste. He talked about the next phase after ITER called DEMO. ITER is designed to produce 500 MW of fusion power from an input of 50 MW heating power. Akko had a slide listing some of the commercial fusion efforts.

Katya Rauhansalo was our tour guide. She had a couple of assistants. They were all really helpful and very knowledgeable. We discussed many fine points of Tokamak design and fusion in general. Marilyn, Eric, and I were combined with a larger group, due to Covid absences. We chatted with members of the other group about PFRC.

A Tokamak is shown below. The green coils are the center stack coils used to induce a current in the plasma. The gray coils are the poloidal coils. The purple coils are the toroidal coils. In ITER, all coils are superconducting. The green donut in the middle of the D coils is the plasma.

The following image shows the Tokamak building.

The first stop was the manufacturing facility for the poloidal coils. The following video shows a crane in operation in the assembly hall.

The top and bottom coils are small enough that they can be shipped complete. The others need to be manufactured. The following figure shows the cryostat for testing the poloidal coils.

This poster gives the details of the testing.

We then moved through the entrance to the Tokamak. We were able to enter the Tokamak building itself. Here is Eric in front of an installed toroidal superconducting coil.

The coil is shaped like a D which works better than a circular coil.

First plasma was scheduled for 2025 but may be delayed. This was partly due to Covid and partly due to the inevitable technical glitches in such a complex project.

Nuclear Fusion Power

Nuclear fusion power research started in earnest in the 1950’s. Initially, researchers thought that the work needed to produce a fusion power plant would be comparable to that needed to produce the first fission plants. That turned out to be unrealistic as the physics was not well understood and plasma confinement was much more difficult than expected. Many of the first machines were Stellarators. One of the first was Lyman Spitzer’s Stellarator at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL).

Many machine geometries were tried such as mirrors and pinches. In the 1960’s the Soviets disclosed success with the Tokamak (тороидальная камера с аксиальным магнитным полем). Unlike the Stellarators, Tokamaks have a circulating current that helps confine the plasma. Since then Tokamaks have been the focus of fusion power research. The Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory produced 10.7 MW of fusion power in 1994 in the Tokamak Fusion Test Reactor (TFTR). The Joint European Torus (JET) produced 22 MW of fusion power in 1997. In 1998 the Japanese JT-60 produced an equivalent power gain of 1.25, that is 1.25 MW of fusion power for 1 MW of input power. The next step in Tokamaks is the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER).

ITER is a large-scale scientific experiment to demonstrate that it is possible to produce commercial energy from fusion. Its goal is to produce a fusion power gain of 10 at a power level of 500 MW and to generate this power for 500 seconds. Operation with tritium is scheduled to begin in 2027. The next step after ITER is DEMO which will be a prototype of a practical fusion power plant. Demo will produce between 2 and 4 GW of thermal power and have a power gain of 25. After DEMO the next machine will be PROTO which will be a fully commercial power plant. PROTO is expected to built after 2050.

In parallel with ITER many other magnetic confinement devices are under test. These include the U.S. National Spherical Tokamak (NSTX) and the Princeton Field Reversed Configuration (on which DFD is based) both at PPPL. Many new Stellarators are under test including the Wendelstein 7-X in Germany, the Helically Symmetric eXperiment (HSX) in the U.S. and the Large Helical Device in Japan. These devices may result in more economical fusion machines than Tokamaks. The field of fusion researchis very vibrant and work around the world is serving to improve our knowledge of plasma physics and the help solve the engineering problems. For example, recently a new method for reducing instabilities was developed at JET.

The first commercial reactors will likely use deuterium and lithium as fuels. The reaction (used in TFTR, JET and ITER) is deuterium and tritium but in a commercial plant the tritium would be produced from the neutron bombardment of lithium as the D-T reaction produces most of its energy in energetic neutrons. Advanced fuels like deuterium helium 3 and boron proton that produce fewer neutrons are also under investigation. Deuterium and helium 3 would power the DFD. The boron-proton reaction would power TriAlpha’s reactor.