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Clean thermonuclear: why, 35 countries are building the world’s largest fusion reactor

Чистый термояд: зачем 35 стран строят самый большой в мире термоядерный реактор

Meeting of the heads of the US and the USSR in 1985 gave the world one of the most ambitious technological projects: the experimental fusion reactor ITER (“way”). In Provence, in the South of France, thousands of scientists and builders are preparing the complex for scientific experiments, we are able to open to mankind the way to thermonuclear power plants of the future.

Nuclear fusion has long excites the minds. In theory, such plants can be four times more effective than current nuclear power, while much cleaner and safer. They have no problems with uncontrolled chain reactions and highly radioactive waste, and fuel can serve as sea water.

Over a multi-billion dollar project work: EU (46% of costs), USA, Russia, India, China, South Korea and Japan (each at 9%). If you do without regular delays and problems with funding, then ITER will work at the end of 2025, forty years later, the negotiations between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev in Geneva.

How it works

Fusion power is trying to copy the processes that occur inside stars: there, at high temperatures and pressure, merge the nuclei of hydrogen isotopes and produce a lot of energy.

To achieve this on Earth, special conditions are required (e.g. temperature 10 times greater than in the core of the Sun) – they are created in a fusion reactor. It is based, at least in the most common scheme, which uses the ITER – tokamak, shaped like a donut vacuum chamber with magnetic coils. The first tokamaks appeared in the USSR in the 1960s, to build ITER, the largest tokamak in the world with a volume of 830 m3.

In the start tokamak, deuterium and tritium, and heated to temperatures above 150 million degrees Celsius. Gas turns into plasma and that plasma is burned all around, keep it away from walls by a magnetic field; across the plasma current is passed. A powerful magnetic field to provide, in turn, the superconducting magnets which need cooling in a vacuum chamber to almost absolute zero – 268°C. Physically, they will be literally two feet away from the white-hot 150 000 000°C plasma. To ensure trouble-free operation of the equipment in such conditions — a difficult engineering challenge.

Modern tokamaks produce less energy than is consumed in heating the system to generate them while adjust does not work. Best result – the British JET that returns to 67% of energy expended. Due to the scale of the structure ITER (this will be a whopper tall with a nine-house, and about the same diameter), the creators hope that the reactor will be able to allocate energy ten times more than is spent on heating of the plasma (to give 500 MW with 50 MW). This moment is fundamental for the construction of fusion power plants in the future.

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But ITER will not produce electricity: all the released energy will go into heating the walls of the tokamak. Although if experiments with ITER will be successful, the next stage (from 2030) will be a prototype fusion reactor for power plants, DEMO – they should appear in the 2040-50 years. The desire to build such reactors are said India, Russia, South Korea and Japan.

The most important objective of ITER is to show the possibility of generating energy by thermonuclear reactor. For this, you will need to provide the managed production of “burning plasma” (since it is a synthesis reaction is self-sustaining) and to achieve self-reproduction of tritium, a rare isotope used as fuel. In addition, ITER will have to demonstrate how modern technologies to the construction of commercial fusion power plants and will allow to assess their reliability and safety.

Safety is one of the key advantages of fusion reactors over the usual nuclear. There is not possible a chain reaction with consequences: in case of problems, the plasma instantly cools down and dies out, say in ITER.

Much better things with the radioactive fuel tritium, a weak source of beta radiation, is generated directly in the reactor. The reactor design requires multiple barriers arising in the process of radioactive substances. The half-life of radioactive waste for most of the isotopes in a fusion reactor is about 10 years, whereas for the individual components of spent nuclear fuel, these values can make thousands and even millions of years.

From zero to 63%

In November 1985 meeting in Geneva, the leaders of the United States and the Soviet Union agreed on a joint study of fusion energy for peaceful purposes – this was the beginning of the project. A year later was Euratom, the Soviet Union, the United States and Japan signed the Treaty.

Work on the design of ITER started in 1988 and continued until approval of the final version in 2001.

In 2003 the consortium to work on ITER has joined China and South Korea, in 2005 India. Then chose the place for building: the neighborhood of St-Paul-lez-durance in Provence, France, near the research center of nuclear energy Cadarache.

The interstate agreement on the establishment of ITER was signed by the Ministers of the countries participating in 21 Nov 2006 and in October 2007 started the organization ITER Organization – the legal entity responsible for the construction, operation and subsequent dismantling of the reactor.

The platform began to prepare in 2007, build – in 2010. in Parallel, the participating countries began to work on the elements of the complex ITER: India is building the project to the cryostat, in the United States develop a Central magnetic coil (her strength enough to lift an aircraft carrier ), the EU and Korea are preparing a vacuum chamber, China and Russia put the superconductors (only need 100 000 km of such conductors), part coils and various electrical components, Japan is preparing a coil of toroidal field.

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As of the end of June 2019 the project was ready “more than 63 per cent”, according to the ITER Organization. Completed more than 70% of the buildings began installing the first components of the reactor. A full phase of the Assembly is due to begin next year, as the construction and delivery of all necessary components: for example, China 23rd Sep built the first 400-ton magnetic coil, it will be delivered to the construction site ITER by December.

Complexity and adaptability ITER exceeds many large-scale scientific project of the century, including the Large hadron Collider.

“The LHC is only vacuum, which accelerates the proton beam, this task is more simple level. ITER is a plasma physics and plasma – this is the number of degrees of freedom, so many instabilities, all of them have to deal with, told Radio Liberty the head of the Russian Agency for ITER Anatoly Krasilnikov. – In terms of a large number of parameters that need to be addressed simultaneously, ITER, of course, much more complicated than the LHC. Well, ITER is expensive.”

Such a complex international project and advanced technologies really expensive. If at the start of the project budget was estimated at €5 billion, by 2017 it has already managed to cross the mark of €20 billion: total number is difficult to estimate, because governments determine the level of expenditure on certain components that they produce. The participants of the project list not the money, and transmit the constructed components.

Not only ITER

Bagel-Tokomak is not the only option for fusion before the science. Alternative ways of learning not only in larger public institutions, but in small startups. They are now in the world, according to estimates by Bloomberg, more than two dozen. However, it is of major breakthroughs and a controlled energy production on a commercial scale is not necessary to speak.

The closest analogue of the tokamak – stellarator, also toroidal, “publicoption” system, for all its likeness does not require to maintain the plasma current. Similar installations have their pros and cons, the largest and most successful at the moment – the German Wendelstein 7-X. German researchers have established a number of records, although the characteristics and scale to ITER her away.

Commonwealth Fusion Systems startup founded by people from MIT, promises to build much smaller, cheaper, with slightly less efficient than ITER reactor TOKAMAKE – SPARC. As they succeed? Scientists hope to use the latest high-temperature superconductors and are going to show the solution in the next two years.

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Another non-standard option – nuclear fusion with inertial confinement. It uses lasers from all sides “crimping” and a miniature heating fuel capsule of deuterium pulses, simulating the processes occurring in the explosion of a hydrogen bomb. The world’s largest scientific organization that uses this approach – the national center ignition (National Ignition Facility) in the United States, there are used for this purpose 193 beam powerful lasers.

Canadian and American General Fusion, Tri Alpha Energy use on their own, even more exotic methods of fusion, but alas, still ready to be commercially deployed solutions no one has presented.

Why and when?

Critics believe that nuclear fusion is too expensive and inefficient commercial enterprise, and invest call, for example, in renewable energy. In ITER do not deny its importance, but emphasize that the creation of new clean energy sources with a constant generation level (due to, say, the number of Sunny days or wind) remains a challenge. Fusion energy is replaced by renewable, but will together with her to serve as an even better alternative to traditional “dirty” sources of energy considered in ITER.

The only question is when it will happen. The first launch is scheduled for December 2025 (the”best technically feasible date””) using hydrogen, hereinafter to be added to the helium, deuterium, and finally complete the work on deuterium-tritium is planned in 2035-m: only then we can achieve a tenfold return on capacity. Date of completion of the project has already shifted, and given its complexity it is unlikely you can be sure that does not happen for new delays. Besides, despite all attempts, at the current stage of development of technology fusion can be too expensive for industrial applications.

Skeptics speak maliciously, that “fusion is the energy source of the future, and will always remain so”. After a few years mankind will be able to cool the ardor of skeptics, or again to reinforce their positions.

Given the complexity of the topic, it is unlikely someone is willing to guarantee time in such projects. One of the pioneers of the industry, the Soviet academician Lev Artsimovich, on the question of when will fusion power, he answered simply: “Then, when it becomes really necessary to mankind.”

Recall that by 2040 China will start to produce energy fusion. While China is preparing to restart after a three-year moratorium stalled its nuclear program, scientists from the laboratory of the district Hefei instead of brute splitting atoms to do fusion, hoping to “put the Sun in a box”.

Previously Electrovette wrote that the study Google buried the dream of cold fusion. Spending 10 million dollars on experiments, the company found no evidence that nuclear fusion can be carried out at room temperature. However, investments were not in vain.

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