Fusion is the only possible way to replace fossil fuels. So how is ITER doing?

Preface. This website, and my book, When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the future of transportation, and Martin Hoffert, et al in the 2002 Advanced Technology Paths to Global Climate Stability: Energy for a Greenhouse Planet, Science. Vol 298 argue that the only possible energy resource that could replace fossil fuels is Fusion.

But given how soon energy will decline, and how far away ITER is likely to be finished, it is unlikely we’ll ever come close to figuring out a way to make fusion work on earth.

Alice Friedemann   www.energyskeptic.com  author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts: Practical Prepping, KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity , XX2 report


Daniel Clery, et al. May 6, 2016. More delays for ITER, as partners balk at costs. Science 352: 636-637

It wasn’t the pat on the back that ITER officials were looking for. Last week, an independent review committee delivered a report that was supposed to confirm that ITER, the troubled international fusion experiment under construction in Cadarache, France, finally has come up with a reliable construction schedule and cost estimate. But the report says only that the new date for first operations—2025, 5 years later than the previous official target—is the earliest possible date and could slip.

And it underscores the challenge of ITER’s ballooning budget. To start running by 2025, ITER managers have asked for an extra €4.6 billion, which they are unlikely to receive. As a result, the report says, ITER’s ultimate goal—producing a “burning plasma” reaction of deuterium and tritium nuclei that sustains itself mostly with its own heat—will be delayed from 2032 until 2035 at the earliest.

ITER officials say the report confirms that the project is finally on the right track. “There is now a credible estimate of the schedule and cost envelope with respect to the financial capabilities of all the members,” says ITER Director-General Bernard Bigot. “All the pieces are in place to make a decision” on enacting the plan. But others say that the new schedule is implausibly optimistic. “It’s all fiction,” says one expert who requested anonymity to protect his connections to the project. “As the report very carefully lays out, there are umpteen assumptions that aren’t going to happen.

Dreamed up in the 1980s, ITER aims to show that deriving energy from nuclear fusion is feasible. Specifically, it aims to produce a burning plasma, trapped in an intense magnetic field, that will generate 10 times more energy than it consumes. In France, the project site is finally taking shape, as workers erect the massive facility’s buildings and install the first components shipped from member states. About 40% of the work needed for first operations is done.

But delays and cost overruns have plagued ITER from the beginning. When the project partners—China, the European Union, India, Japan, Russia, South Korea, and the United States—signed the construction agreement in 2006, ITER was supposed to be finished om 2016 for about $11 billion. The actual cost, impossible to calculate exactly because members contribute mostly parts rather than cash and use different accounting systems, could be three times as high.

ITER’s woes stem from two sources, experts say. First, its design was far from complete when the agreement was signed. In fact, the report says, it’s still not complete.

Second, the ITER agreement established a weak central organization with little power to direct the project. Those management deficiencies were laid bare in a February 2014 review that called for 11 reforms, including the appointment of a new director-general and the completion of a realistic “baseline” construction schedule and cost estimate. Last November the ITER organization presented that new baseline—called the updated long-term schedule (ULTS)—to the ITER Council of representatives from the member states, and the council requested the independent review. The ULTS itself has never been made public, researchers say, but the panel report gives the bottom line.

The 14-member review panel, headed by Albrecht Wagner, former chief of the DESY particle physics lab in Hamburg, Germany, praised Bigot, a French nuclear physicist with extensive management experience in industry and government, for greatly improving ITER’s management. The changes have “led to a substantial improvement in project performance, a high degree of motivation, and considerable progress during the past 12 months,” the report says.

However, the report also suggests that the new schedule falls short of providing a true, reliable baseline. “[T]his is a success-oriented schedule with no contingency,” the report says. “If any of the major risks that the [ITER organization] has identified materializes, then the [first plasma] date will almost certainly slip by some degree.” The reviewers do not give a “probable” date for when ITER might actually start, notes the expert with connections to the project, who estimates it at 2028 or 2029. “The answer is so devastating that if they came out and said it in public, they might lose [the support of ] the European Union,” he says.

The biggest assumption behind the schedule is that members will provide an extra €4.6 billion ($5.2 billion) between now and 2025. That money would enable the ITER organization to hire many more engineers, technicians, and skilled workers to assemble the parts that the members provide. It would also enable the ITER organization to develop a reserve fund for contingencies. However, the ITER Council made it clear at its last meeting in November 2015 that the cash would not be forthcoming. In particular, representatives of the European Union—which, as host, bears 45% of the financial burden—noted that the European Parliament has fixed spending on ITER through 2020, and it cannot be increased.

Since then, the ITER organization has been trying to figure out how to keep to the schedule at a lower annual cost, adjusting it even as reviewers were analyzing it. One option would be to delay the construction of some components that won’t be needed in the experiment’s early years, when it will run on just hydrogen or deuterium. Neither substance can support a burning plasma, so the start of runs to achieve one would have to wait an extra 3.5 years, until 2035, the report estimates. That date “is so far off that it’s more like an idea,” says Stephen Dean, president of Fusion Power Associates, a nonprofit foundation in Gaithersburg, Maryland, that advocates for fusion development.

The review panel calls for the formulation of a real baseline by November. Reaching consensus on the schedule may be difficult, Dean warns, because ITER members have divergent priorities. Whereas the European Union frets over annual costs, Japan and South Korea worry about keeping the schedule for burning plasma, he says. That’s because they’re already planning ITER’s successors, “demo” power plants that would generate electricity. To build one by 2050, they need the ITER data as soon as possible. “From the beginning of the process the Asian countries wanted to get to [deuterium-tritium] burning as fast as possible,” Dean says. “They are not going to be happy to hear that the date for D-T burning is as far away as 2035.”

Clery, D. November 27, 2015. More delays for ITER fusion project…first plasma will take 6 years longer than planned. Science 350:1011.

Managers of the troubled ITER fusion project delivered a dose of reality last week: a new schedule that is likely to push the estimated date of completion back by 6 years, to 2025, and add roughly €2 billion to the project’s ballooning cost. Researchers have never managed to achieve a controlled fusion reaction on Earth that produces more energy than it consumes. ITER, with a doughnut-shaped “tokamak” reaction chamber able to contain 840 cubic meters of superheated hydrogen gas, or plasma, is the biggest attempt so far and should produce 500 megawatts of power from a 50 megawatt input. The project began in 2006 with an estimated cost of €5 billion and a start date—or first plasma—in 2016. The figures quickly changed to €15 billion and 2019, but confidence in those numbers has eroded over the years.

The cost of running the ITER organization and the seven “domestic agencies” that handle industrial contracts for each partner is very roughly €350 million per year, so the delay will add about €2 billion. Many factors have slowed progress, including the complexity of the project, delays in finalizing the design, and the demands of France’s nuclear regulator. ITER’s organizational structure is almost as complex as its technology. Each partner manufactures a share of the necessary components: 45% from the European Union (as host), and 9% from each of the others. How much each partner spends to fulfill its share is its own concern and is not revealed, making the true cost of the project difficult to assess.

April 10, 2014. Cost Skyrockets for United States’ Share of ITER Fusion Project. Science.


  • ITER won’t start running until 2024 or 2025
  • The project won’t be done until 2034
  • creating a “burning plasma” that produces more energy than the machine itself consumes is at least 20 years away

Also see:

Why fusion power is still 30 years away

Science : No single or combination of alternative energy resources can replace fossil fuels

ITER, the international fusion experiment under construction in Cadarache, France, aims to prove that nuclear fusion is a viable power source by creating a “burning plasma” that produces more energy than the machine itself consumes. Although that goal is at least 20 years away, ITER is already burning through money at a prodigious pace.

ITER was supposed to start running by 2016. Since then, however, the project has been plagued by delays, cost increases, and management problem. ITER is now expected to cost at least $21 billion and won’t turn on until 2020 at the earliest. And a recent review slammed ITER’s management.

The United States and ITER share a complicated history. The project was first proposed in 1985 as a joint venture with the Soviet Union and Japan. The United States backed out of that effort in 1998, citing concerns over cost and feasibility—only to jump in again in 2003. At the time, ITER was envisioned to cost roughly $5 billion. That estimate had grown to $12 billion by 2006, when the European Union, China, India, Japan, Russia, South Korea, and United States signed a formal agreement to build the device. The United States agreed, essentially, to build 9% of the parts for the reactor, at whatever price was necessary.

Cost to the United States

The United States is only a minor partner in the project, which began construction in 2008. But the U.S. contribution to ITER will total $3.9 billion—roughly four times as much as originally estimated—according to a new cost estimate released yesterday. That is about $1.4 billion higher than a 2011 cost estimate, and the numbers are likely to intensify doubts among some members of Congress about continuing the U.S. involvement in the project.

The cost of the U.S. contribution has increased, too, although by how much has been unclear. Officials with U.S. ITER had not released an updated cost profile for several years, until Ned Sauthoff, project manager for U.S. ITER at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, did so yesterday. Speaking to a meeting of the Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Fusion Energy Sciences Advisory Committee in Rockville, Maryland, Sauthoff reported that the total cost of the U.S. contribution would be $3.9 billion by the time the project is done in 2034. The schedule assumes that ITER won’t start running until 2024 or 2025. In comparison, an April 2011 funding profile pegged the cost of U.S. ITER at $2.5 billion.

The reason for the difference lies mainly in the timing. The 2011 cost profile would have seen spending on U.S. ITER plateau at $350 million per year from 2014 through 2016. However, in 2013, DOE officials decided (as part of their budget request for the following year) to cap spending on ITER at $225 million per year to prevent the project from consuming the entire budget of DOE’s fusion energy sciences program. Stretching out the budget invariably increases costs, researchers say. This year, the fusion program has a total budget of $505 million, including the $200 million Congress ultimately decided to spend on ITER. Sauthoff stresses that ITER researchers are making concrete progress in construction. “There is very strong progress in the fabrication of components around the world,” he said in an e-mail after the meeting. “US components needed for the construction sequence are being completed for delivery in 2014 and 2015.”

The new numbers appear to be giving some members of Congress heartburn. In a separate hearing yesterday on the proposed 2015 budget for DOE, Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), the chair of Energy and Water Development Subcommittee of the Senate Committee on Appropriations, said that a review by DOE officials suggested that the cost of U.S. ITER could rise as high as $6 billion—more, if the concerns over ITER management are not addressed. “I’m really beginning to believe that our involvement in ITER is not practical, that we will not gain what we hope to gain from it, and instead this money could be much better be spent elsewhere,” Feinstein said.

Could the United States really back out of ITER? The Obama administration conceives of the U.S. commitment to ITER as being on a par with a treaty agreement, one Washington insider says, so the administration simply cannot walk away from that commitment. But one Senate staffer who works for the Democratic majority says that’s only the administration’s position. In fact, the staffer says, the administration seems to be split, with officials at the State Department arguing that the U.S. commitment to ITER is inviolable and officials at DOE indicating that they’d be just as happy without the project on their hands. The staffer suggests that the conflict explains why the administration requested only $150 million for ITER next year instead of the supposed maximum of $225 million it had set earlier.

The Senate staffer suggests that if administration officials can’t make up their minds about ITER, Congress could do it for them in the next several months, as they write annual spending bills. “Our intention is make a decision for ourselves in our markup [of the 2015] budget,” the staffer says. “They won’t have a choice.”

Nuclear promises made in the past weren’t kept either

Many other nuclear wonders were to be in place by the year 2000: “Giant earth-stationary satellites bearing compact nuclear reactors will broadcast television programs”; nuclear-powered tankers and other merchant ships “will almost certainly ply the seas”; “peaceful nuclear explosives will be employed on a widespread scale” in underground mineral mining and used to modify the earth’s surface, alter river flows, and construct new canals and new harbors in Alaska and Siberia; and “nuclear propulsion” would carry men to Mars.  With physicist William Corliss, Seaborg advocated the creation of underground cities—a “nether frontier”—that would be carved out using nuclear explosives. The surface could then be returned to wilderness, and visiting it would be just a matter of getting into an elevator.

Source: 1971, Glenn Seaborg, chairman of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission and a Nobel Prize–winning chemist, delivered an address at the fourth International Conference on the Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy

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2 Responses to Fusion is the only possible way to replace fossil fuels. So how is ITER doing?

  1. NJF says:

    I am unconvinced ITER is even pursuing the best long-term strategy for fusion energy.

    Boron or lithium fusion is probably the best way to go long-term because it is aneutronic, meaning that 80% of the energy of the nuclear reaction isn’t ejected into the lithium blanket that surrounds the tritium-deuterium plasma, degrading over time and requiring total replacement.

    Fusion is incredibly, incredibly costly to operate because it requires a team of physics PhD’s to troubleshoot anything that goes wrong. A fusion reactor is likely the most complicated machine ever built.

    Fission reactors can’t compete as it is. Fusion reactors are unlikely to ever be economical. Also, fusion reactors have issues with heat exchange surface area. The reactor has to be a doughnut shape. Surface area grows more slowly than volume. Fission reactors have no such limitations.

    Deuterium is not that rare, but tritium isn’t the most abundant isotope in the sea… D-D fusion is far too difficult to do yet, even for ITER.

    Burning gas for power, though lower in emissions, is like burning gold. It is foolhardy to consume something so valuable that could easily be replaced by coal or uranium (which has little use other than its ability to fission). Obviously not as egregious as burning oil, but still a waste.

  2. Thermonuclear fusion also would create nuclear wastes. High energy free neutrons can turn non-radioactive atoms into radioactive isotopes. Cobalt-59 becomes cobalt-60, for example.

    There have been proposals to surround fusion reactors with U-238 to create Pu-239.

    If you think climate change is happening too slowly, then building facilities to create 100 million degree plasma would help speed up the process!

    I’d rather see that energy, talent, money go toward relocalization, transition towns, permaculture, power down, recognizing limits to growth, etc. But this is a minority point of view, even among environmentalists.