ITER and the Quest to Replicate the Sun

The ITER fusion project began its assembly phase this July, thirty-five years after its inception at the hands of Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev. ITER, the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, is a jointly funded and produced project by the United States, India, Japan, South Korea, Russia, China, and the European Union—which is ironic, given the increasing hostilities between nearly all of those major global powers. In a world fractured by geopolitics, trade wars, and ideological differences, it seems science is the unification principle. At least, for now.

And for now, the ITER stands as mankind’s most promising attempt to replicate the power of the sun here on earth. Since the middle of the 20th century, the world has relied on the combustible power of atomic fission to produce nuclear energy. While the energy produced by nuclear fission is abundant, efficient, and carries little to no carbon footprint, the negative optics surrounding its byproduct, radioactive waste, has long generated an unfavorable opinion within the global public and hampered efforts by the nuclear industry to expand and advance its technology.

Fusion offers a much more expansive arsenal of assets. To begin with, its hydrogen isotope fuels are quite plentiful—ranging from extractable deuterium in seawater, to tritium that could be generated from a combination of lithium and the neutrons produced in the fusion reaction itself. As far as radioactive waste, the amount produced would be so minuscule and short-lived it would be inconsequential compared to that of fission reactors. Finally, the energy produced by fusion vastly outweighs even the impressive levels fission currently is capable of producing.

Officially planned for construction in Southern France in 2005, the ITER project now begins its assembly phase, where portions of the $23.5 billion dollar facility will be added onto the exoskeleton structure during a 5-year period. “We hope to see first plasma in five years. That will only be a short plasma – lasting a few milliseconds – demonstrating all the magnets work. Then there will have to be a further stage of assembly of some of the other components”, said Ian Chapman, chief executive of the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority, “Nevertheless it’s ticking off milestones on that path to demonstrating fusion at the commercial scale.”

For now the world must wait—and while we do, in the midst of such polarizing and challenging times for us all, it might help to remember ITER, the science still bringing the world together.

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