An Overdue Reactor That Could Be the Key to Our Fusion Revolution

Even with the recent advancements in renewable energy technologies, it's going to be tough to satisfy the electrical needs of our booming human population in the coming years. However, if this international nuclear reactor can ever come online, we may see fusion-driven, utility-scale power grids within our lifetimes.

The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) is an experimental tokamak nuclear fusion reactor located at the Cadarache scientific research facility in the south of France and grew out of earlier work around plasma physics. It's being built as part of an international effort— involving the US, China, the EU, India, Japan, Russia, and South Korea—to harness and recreate the immensely potent energy production capabilities of our Sun. The ITER is, simply, a miniaturized sun serving as a proof of concept. If this reactor proves successful, safe, and stable, the lessons researchers learn and the date they collect will be leveraged to create a commercial-scale reactor.

An Overdue Reactor That Could Be the Key to Our Fusion Revolution

Even as a proof of concept, the ITER is enormous. It's twice as big and 16 times as heavy as any other tokamak reactor ever built. The 830 cubic meter doughnut-shaped vacuum chamber, where a mix of deuterium and tritium isotopes are heated to 150 million degrees C to form plasma which is then confined and controlled via powerful superconducting magnetic coils, is 64 feet in diameter. These coils are necessary to keep the plasma from burning clear through the containment wall. The structure as a whole will be well over 100 feet tall, weigh 5,116 tons—double that of the Eiffel Tower—and produce 500 MW throughout its 20 year operational life.

When that operational life starts, however, is still up for debate. Crews first broke ground in 2007 with hopes of completing in 2016 but a seemingly endless string of delays and budget overruns have pushed the ribbon-cutting back more than a decade, to 2019 at the earliest. And though it is expected to start running in 2020, it likely won't be running at full power until 2027. Given the current political situations among the seven participatory states that seems a rather optimistic timetable, still if it does prove successful, it could substantially alleviate—if not entirely eliminate—global energy demand. [ITER - Wiki]

Images: ITER / ENGAGE