"I thank the Spanish industry for the high quality of its contributions"
Bernard Bigot, ITER's general director explains during this detailled interview that "fusion energy is clean and safe" and ITER represents the culmination of decades of international research towards the industrial explotation of fusion energy. Nowadays, 50 percent of the total construction work scope through first plasma is now complete. He belives that "in the second half of this century we will have accumulated enough knowledge and experience to create a large fusion industry".
"ITER is a unique research project that aims to duplicate, here on Earth, the nuclear reactions that occur at the core of the Sun"
Could you please give us a summary of the ITER project for readers that are not familiar with it?
ITER is a unique research project that aims to duplicate, here on Earth, the nuclear reactions that occur at the core of the Sun and Sun-like stars—the fusion of hydrogen nuclei into helium and energy. As you can imagine, it is a huge technological challenge. But it is the key step to accessing a new energy source, one that could bring a decisive contribution to meeting humankind's ever-growing needs in energy. ITER represents both the culmination of six decades of international research carried out on hundreds of fusion machines worldwide and a decisive and indispensable step towards the industrial exploitation of fusion energy.
ITER is also unique in that it brings together seven partners representing 35 nations, half the world's population and 85% of its industrial production. Never in history have so many nations worked together to achieve a common goal. ITER is a global response to a global challenge.
100,000 kilometers of superconducting strands, 150 million degrees centigrade, 23,000 tons of reactor weight. These are some of the impressive numbers for this experimental fusion reactor. Is everything in this project equally immense?
Contrary to a fission reactor, which can be miniaturized to fit into a submarine or a space probe, an energy-generating fusion machine is necessarily large. In order to achieve a "burning plasma" that produces much more energy than that required to heat it, something that has never been done before, we need to heat and confine a large volume of plasma (~ 850 cubic metres). Some of the "impressive numbers" that you mention derive from the plasma volume or, in the case of temperature, from the necessary conditions to achieve the fusion of hydrogen nuclei.
"Fusion energy is clean, intrinsically safe and based on virtually inexhaustible fuels"
What are the advantages of this technology, and the challenges for the coming years?
Fusion energy is clean, intrinsically safe and based on virtually inexhaustible fuels. It is clean because it does not generate CO2 or greenhouse effect gases, nor does it produce long-life/high-activity nuclear waste. It is intrinsically safe because of the very nature of the fusion reaction and because there are never more than 2 grams of fusion fuels in suspension inside the machine at a given time. Besides, and this is one of the reasons why a burning plasma is so difficult to obtain and maintain, the fusion reactions simply stop when all parameters cease to be nominal. A Fukushima or Chernobyl-type accident is simply not possible in a fusion machine.
Now the fuels: fusion energy can theoretically be obtained through several combinations of light atoms. However, in the present state of our technology, it is the reaction between two hydrogen isotopes, deuterium and tritium, that is the most accessible—although it is very difficult to realize. Deuterium poses no problem: it is easily extracted from water. With tritium, it's a bit more complicated. ITER will consume the few dozen kilograms that are available worldwide and experiment tritium production in situ, inside the machine. We will use the neutrons produced by the fusion reaction to produce tritium from lithium, a metal that is as abundant and widely distributed as lead. So our fuels are water and lithium and they are indeed virtually inexhaustible. There is enough deuterium in a half-filled bathtub, and enough lithium in a laptop battery to cover the electricity needs of an average European for 30 years...
ITER is considered the world's most important research project. How do you handle your job as general director in a project of such large dimensions, and what are your priorities?
Becoming the ITER Director-General in March 2015 was not part of my professional plan. Following a long career in research, higher education and top government administration I had just completed two mandates as Administrator-General of the French Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission (CEA) when I was asked by the ITER Council (the organization's governing body) to fill in the job. I had been closely associated with ITER since France's bid to host the project in 2003 and in 2007 I was delegated by the French government to act as High Representative for the implementation of ITER in France. I had a good knowledge of ITER and of the challenges the project was facing.
I accepted the Council's offer at a crucial moment in ITER history, when the project was entering into manufacturing and preparations for assembly. This new phase required a new organization—one tailored to meet the double challenge of delivering an installation that is both a research facility and an industrial facility. What we needed at that point and need even more today was integration. ITER is a complex structure, with a central team here in France and seven "domestic agencies" emanating from the seven ITER Members that are responsible for the in-kind procurement of machine components and installation systems. To achieve this integration, we needed a clear, centralized decision-making process under the authority of the Director-General. This being established and accepted by all, we could move on, as "One ITER," to promote and establish a project culture based on shared values of excellence, adherence to commitments, adherence to schedule and budget, and careful and effective use of public funds. And all the while making safety and quality our highest priority.
"The ITER staff hails from some 35 nationalities and needs to work as one entity, one large team bent on a common goal"
You lead a team composed of over 1,200 workers living in France but with multiple nationalities. What advice do you have, or what techniques do you use to lead teams with these characteristics?
The ITER staff hails from some 35 nationalities and needs to work as one entity, one large team bent on a common goal. How do we achieve harmony and efficiency? Through mutual respect and the understanding that each culture has its own work habits, traditions and "best practices." However at the end of the day, after well documented debates, decisions have to be taken and implemented by all.
The global world we live in has not erased national particularisms. But instead of seeing this as a problem, we see it as an asset: we are building a project culture in a way that takes advantage of the diversity of these "best practices" to achieve an optimal result. And in case we forget these fundamentals, we can attend regular intercultural workshops and seminars... ITER is breaking new grounds and our experience is of great interest to intercultural professionals and students throughout the world.
Speaking of employment. The ITER website continuously publishes job offers. What type of profiles are you hiring?
Whatever the field considered, whether it is engineering, physics, finance or administration, we are simply looking for the best, the most experienced, the most competent, and the most dedicated. But there is more: ITER is an international organization. Whatever your nationality, the colleague you will share your office with or the manager you will answer to will be Russian, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Indian, American, European... you have to feel comfortable with and stimulated by the challenges of working in such a multicultural environment. And of course you need to have a good command of English, which is our working language. I've often said that, when joining ITER you symbolically abandon your nationality. You become Iternational... Working at ITER is very demanding but it is also very rewarding. Can you think of something more exciting, more motivating, than contributing to a project that can change the course of civilization for thousands of years?
"Can you think of something more exciting, more motivating, than contributing to a project that can change the course of civilization for thousands of years?"
You get thousands of visits. What intrigues and piques the interest of visitors, and what type of groups attend your site?
We receive approximately 17,000 visitors every year on the ITER site. They come from all walks of life: students of all ages, politicians and government executives, industrialists, local senior citizens clubs... What strikes them all when they visit the ITER site is the concrete, spectacular reality of this project. When you see the Tokamak Complex rising five storeys high; the 30-metre-wide cryostat taking shape in its workshop; or the ring magnets (17 to 24 metres in diameter) being wound in an on-site winding facility, your vision of the future of fusion dramatically changes: you see it happening before your own eyes... And keep in mind that what's happening here on the construction site in southern France is only part of the global ITER project: in factories throughout the world, thousands of components and systems are being manufactured, tested and commissioned before being shipped and readied for assembly and integration.
What is the current situation of the work being done on the experimental reactor, and what were the latest advances?
A few months ago, in November 2017, we passed an important symbolic milestone: based on the stringent metrics that measure project performance, 50 percent of the "total construction work scope through First Plasma" is now complete. For instance, design, which accounts for approximately one-fourth of the total work scope, is now above 95 percent complete; manufacturing and building, which represents almost half of the total work scope, is close to 53 percent complete. In terms of activities that need to be completed, ITER is now halfway to its first operational event – the production of its "First Plasma" at the end of 2025. The latest advances are the completion of the winding packs of the 18 vertical large superconducting coils; the welding of the cryostat base; the finalization of the 30-metre-high bioshield wall; the delivery of the three largest cold boxes ever built and of 18 helium compressors for the cryogenic plant.
When do you expect citizens will be able to use energy from fusion reactors?
A major figure in fusion history, the Russian physicist Lev Artsimovitch (1909-1973), used to say that "fusion energy will be available when society needs it." There is something quite profound in this prediction. It means that governments will only be willing to make the necessary human and financial efforts to develop fusion when it becomes obvious that we need that option to insure that humankind continues its economic, industrial and social development. ITER is a first and decisive step in this direction. Is an experimental installation that is indispensable to demonstrate the science and technology of future fusion reactors. After ITER, and before entering the industrial age of fusion energy, we need to experiment with a steady-state machine—DEMO—which will be closer to an industrial prototype.
My conviction is that in the second half of this century, beyond 2060, we will have accumulated enough knowledge and experience to create a large fusion industry—just like in the past decades we have created an oil, gas or nuclear fission industry. But like with any of these industries, the decision will be both technical and political and rest in the individual governments' and investors' hands.
"Nuclear energy in both forms, along with renewables, will be at the core of the energy mix of the future"
While fusion arrives, do you consider that the current fission energy, in combination with renewables, is a good alternative to stall contaminating emissions?
The world has to be determined about drastically reducing greenhouse gases emissions. To achieve this objective there is no other option than to save energy and to develop nuclear and renewable energies. Nuclear energy in both forms, along with renewables, will be at the core of the energy mix of the future—and by "future" I mean the decades to come. They are the alternative of choice. However, only nuclear energy, whether fusion or fission, can provide the strong and dependable "baseload" that the world's industrial, economic and social development calls for.
One of the major challenges that nuclear fission is facing is keeping safety as the highest priority. In my opinion, the future of fission industry depends on our capacity to build and operate installations that guarantee the highest level of safety possible, and to develop solutions for the long-term management of long-life, high-activity nuclear waste. Fusion does not have these issues and will develop along with the new generation of fission reactors, such as the fast-neutron sodium-cooled solutions for which the French CEA is developing a demonstrator in partnership with several countries. Such reactors have the ability to burn the depleted uranium from fuel processing, of which large quantities are available. They also have a potential to burn the plutonium that results from spent fuel reprocessing, which account for most of the long-term radiotoxicity in spent fuels.
How would you rate the Spanish contribution to ITER exporting products and participating in its manufacture as well as hosting Fusion for Energy in Barcelona?
ITER has a very close relationship with Spain, and not only because Barcelona hosts the European agency Fusion for Energy, which manages the European in-kind contribution to the project. Spanish research centers such as CIEMAT play a crucial role in ITER by contributing to the development of diagnostic systems, plasma heating components, test blanket modules, and control and data acquisition systems. Spanish industry has won several hundred million euros in contracts in a highly competitive market. Its capabilities cover a wide range of areas, making it possible to participate in the construction of the ITER buildings and in the fabrication of many ITER components such as the vacuum vessel, magnets test blankets modules, plant systems, in-vessel components, remote handling, tooling, safety, instrumentation and control, and CODAC, to name but a few.
Would you like to add anything?
would like to thank you for this detailed interview. I hope I was able to convey to your readers the importance of ITER and fusion for our common future and to communicate the enthusiasm and pride we all feel at contributing to a project of this magnitude. I would like also to thank the Spanish industry for the high quality of its contributions and their understanding of the critical importance of strictly respecting the delivery schedule.