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Analysis | Fusion Factor

iter source iter

As the concrete pours on the foundations for the international fusion power experiment Iter, we consider fusion’s hidden factor.

International fusion power experiment Iter, located in Provence, France, aims to take the first steps towards a commercially viable fusion power station.

This is a long-standing dream – one that always seems about 10 years away – to create an immensely efficient carbon-free power source from abundant natural resources, such as water and tritium.

And all this with little to no long-term radioactive waste.

The long view is a common feature in nuclear schemes that is shared with other major infrastructure projects.

These are projects that require to people think generations ahead. 

Professor Steve Cowley, head of the EURATOM/CCFE Fusion Association, told New Civil Engineer that he might see a commercially viable fusion reactor in his lifetime.

”I hope so — certainly China aims to have a working machine by the 2040s and the EU by the 2050s. The first reactors will inevitably be clumsy but with time I hope they become efficient and cheap,” he said.

Source: ITER

”Fusion reactors will be very complex and making them available 80-90% of the time means that all the engineering will have to be very robust,” he added.

”The machine will have to be maintained robotically — it is a very challenging environment. Finally the materials will decay under neutron bombardment and sections of the arching will have to be placed regularly — perhaps every three years.”

New Civil Engineer last checked in on the Iter project back in May 2015.

“The progress is considerable within a year actually,” Laurent Patisson, team coordinator, Civil Structural Architecture, told New Civil Engineer

”Half of the slab for the Diagnostic Building is complete, and 50% or so of the reinforcement process.”

The Diagnostic Building is a 40mx80m, five-storey structure that will house diagnostic instruments to monitor the reactor process. 

This July, work began on the ground level for the project’s Tokamak reactor. Six out of eleven concrete plots have been poured at the reactor complex’s basement level. Six columns of eighteen have also been completed.

“We have in place already 50% of the reinforcement in the remaining part of the Tokamak Building,” added Patisson.

Concrete pouring and rebar work continues on a 3.2m thick bioshield that will protect workers from the fusion reaction.

Source: ITER

Concrete pouring and steel reinforcement has also started on the Radiofrequency Heating Building that will house 24 gyrotrons. 

Yes, these devices sound like a character from the Transformers franchise.

A gyrtron creates microwaves for the project that are 1,000 times more powerful than a domestic microwave oven. 

That’s more punch than Megatron. 

The gyrotrons will share the space with generators that produce high-power radio frequency waves for the project’s 45t antennas.

The kit will be in place by October 2017. 

Altogether, six buildings are under construction at Iter, and preparatory work has started on another three. There are 1,500 people working on the project. The increased staff numbers have speeded the project’s pace, according to Patisson.

The project is on course for major civil engineering work to start in January 2017. Final completion is scheduled for December 2019.

But the hidden factor in long-term projects is not the immediate construction timeline.

It’s the human institutions that sustain the project.

An east German citizen aged 80 will have lived under three completely different political regimes: totalitarian Nazi Germany, the communist German Democratic Republic and the liberal capitalist Federal Republic of Germany – throw in the supranational EU, and that makes four.

And each one had a completely different view on how to organise society, technology and engineering.

That story is repeated is repeated across Europe – and in most places around the world.

We take institutional stability for granted in the UK. The Monarchy and Parliament have existed (albeit in modified forms) for hundreds of years.

rome pantheon


Pantheon – still looking good after almost 1,900 years. Source: Ian Monroe 

Human institutions are more fragile than concrete.

Emperor Hadrian commissioned Rome’s Pantheon. The concrete in the building persists though the Roman Empire is no more.

With skilful design, engineers can defy time and change better than the systems that direct them. 

At this moment the EU is undergoing change, several countries have collapsed in the Middle East, borders have been redrawn in the Ukraine and China is challenging international systems dominated by the US.

Our most ambitious projects, such as Iter, must be carried by institutions across generations. 

What we can never say is that these will be there in another 10 years – or even tomorrow.
















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