Fusion power gets an architectMay 20, 2010 - Geoff Brumfiel - nature.com
After a year-long pause it looks like construction may finally swing into high gear at ITER, the multibillion-dollar fusion experiment located in St-Paul-lez-Durance, France.
For those not familiar with the project, ITER is a massive undertaking between seven partners to prove the viability of fusion as a power source. It's basically a giant magnetic bottle that will squeeze and heat a gas of two hydrogen isotopes (deuterium and tritium) until they fuse together. That fusion process will release energetic neutrons and a lot of energy, far more than you'd get by splitting apart uranium atoms in a traditional nuclear reactor.
ITER is meant to prove that controlled fusion can produce more energy than it consumes. But first the European Union, United States, Russia, India, China, South Korea and Japan must prove that they can work together as a true multilateral consortium to build the thing.
Getting the seven ITER partners working in synchrony has not gone smoothly. In exchange for hosting, Europe is shouldering around 45% of construction costs, which was originally budgeted at €5 billion (US$6.8 billion). Current estimates of the total ITER cost are about double that, although nobody is saying for sure just how much the total project will cost. As a result, the European Commission is having a devil of a time getting the 27 European member states involved with ITER to cough up the extra cash.
For that reason, and others, the EU's contracting agency for the project, known as F4E, has been slow to draw up the necessary agreements that would allow work on the site to begin. There hasn't been much done to ITER since last April, when French workers finished clearing and levelling the site. The situation has caused enormous tension both within the ITER Organization and the European Commission.
But there was good news yesterday: F4E has awarded a €150 million architecture contract for ITER, which will pave the way for design and construction of the ITER buildings. The contract went to a consortium of four engineering firms in France, Spain and the United Kingdom. According to Sabina Griffith, over at the ITER organization, construction on the main building for the project will begin next month.
That should keep ITER on its current, and already much delayed, completion date of November 2019.