“Nuclear fission and fusion will coexist”
Replicating the fusion reactions that take place in the stars with the purpose of producing electric energy has been the goal of many generations of physicists and engineers. Since 2006 this purpose is widely shared by the governments of the main global powers, and has materialized as a large-scale co-operation unprecedented in the energy sector. We are talking about the nuclear fusion project known as ITER (“the way” in Latin).
Nuclear fusion aims to reproduce on Earth the fusion reactions produced by the Sun and stars
“ITER, building a Sun on Earth” was the title (translated from Spanish) of a conference organized by Foro Nuclear with Jesús Izquierdo, doctor in Nuclear Engineering and currently Associate to the Chief Engineer of the European Fusion Agency (F4E), which is based in Barcelona and has a staff of around 450 people. He is in charge of Technical Integration at ITER’s Engineering Division.
In the conversation, this expert introduces the basic principles of fusion, both physical and technological, and presents the achievements reached in the construction of ITER in Cadarache (France); the Tokamak that aims to produce 500 MW of fusion energy.
During his participation, Jesús Izquierdo says that “we certainly share the global energy problem as well as the certainty that science and technology will play a very important role to solve it, and this involves generating resources as well as energy consumption. We have an energy problem because of the fast-paced growth of the global population and its need of energy resources.”
It is in this context, he explains, achieving on Earth the energy produced by the Sun and stars through fusion is a good candidate to fix this problem.
In order to achieve nuclear fusion we first need plasma, he commented during his conference. “A plasma where the nuclei have the possibility of coming together fast enough to be fused together. We need a plasma where the possibilities of collision are high, and the way we can increase collision possibilities is by increasing the temperature and giving the nuclei more kinetic energy.”
A 150-million degree plasma
“At what temperature are we going to have a high possibility of fusion collisions? We need a plasma with a temperature of 150 million degrees, and that is the first technological challenge. Where can we heat plasma up to 150 million degrees, a temperature ten times higher than the Sun? On Earth we lack materials that withstand these temperatures, and that is where the solution of magnetic confinement and the Tokamak comes in: since the nuclei are charged particles we can capture them inside magnetic fields away from the materials that comprise the reactor. Once the plasma is confined, we maximize the movement of these particles for the longest possible time, as that will increase the chances of collision and the production rate of fusion reactions, and thus of energy,” explains the expert.
Embracing nuclear fusion
The Tokamak is the fusion technology via magnetic confinement developed in ITER, but there are other technologies such as inertial confinement, which tries to emulate the pressures and densities produced in the Sun, explains Jesús Izquierdo.
All the world’s known fusion devices (a total of up to 124 public and private projects) are available in this website from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). “These data make us think that nuclear fusion is a serious proposal from the public administration as well as the private sector,” assures Jesús Izquierdo in his participation. The proof, he adds, is “the interest shared with administrations, industry, society and many other fields, as well as the important position that the European Union (EU) gives to nuclear fusion in its administration structures. Nuclear fusion is on the same rank as renewable energies at the EU’s Directorate-General for Energy and Innovation.”
The International Atomic Energy Agency indicates there are 124 existing Tokamaks all over the world, in private and public projects
“ITER’s main goal,” he continues, “is to prove the scientific and technological feasibility of nuclear fusion.” Not in any way, he adds, “but through the generation of 500 MW of fusion power, or ten times the power that we inject into the plasma, with pulses that should be around 400 seconds, without excluding the option of longer pulses, even 3,000 seconds long. The goal of all this is to integrate into one single machine and one single device the technologies being currently tested in different Tokamaks around the world. ITER aims to integrate and bring together the best of each in a bigger size comparable to the industrial scale.”
“ITER is one of the few international co-operations in the field of energy where knowledge is shared”
“ITER’s seed was planted few decades ago,” indicates Jesús Izquierdo. “Back in the eighties, the greatest world powers at the time signed an agreement to develop fusion energy for civil purposes for energy production. ITER’s technological challenge is extremely interesting and impressive, and we engineers are passionate about it. And the challenge presented by this project’s management is just as important as the technological challenge: each of the seven co-operating members (China, the EU, Japan, South Korea, Russia and the United States) are committed to building one part of the reactor, and what is most important, to share their knowledge on how to build that part of the Tokamak. It might look like ITER’s main goal is to get those 500 MW of fusion, but the data we will be generating in its design and operation are just as important. ITER is one of the few international co-operations in the energy field where knowledge is shared,” he adds.
“ITER’s technological challenge is very interesting and impressive, and we engineers are passionate about it”
Regarding the public’s question of whether fusion will replace fission (which is currently being produced at operating nuclear power plants), Jesús Izquierdo believes that the future contemplates an energy mix. “There will always be room for all energy sources, and although fission and fusion are both nuclear they will most probably coexist for a long time. The coexistence of both technologies seems to be a reality.”
“The future contemplates an energy mix. Nuclear fusion and fission will coexist for a long time”
At the end of his participation, this expert in nuclear fusion answered a few questions for Foro Nuclear’s Newsletter:
What challenges have been achieved recently, and at what point of advancement is the ITER project?
Every day, the ITER site receives the components built by its members. The rhythm of assembly, especially of the Tokamak’s components, is advancing at a good pace. 73% of the necessary tasks for the first plasma have already been completed. Readers are invited to follow this work via live cams at www.iter.org
You said fusion and fission will coexist. When do you think this will happen?
Not before the 2050’s, which is when the first fusion reactors are expected to be connected to the grid.
What types of professional profiles do ITER staff have?
The construction of ITER is strongly multidisciplinary: engineers, physicists… but also lawyers or economists, given the legal and economic implications of a project like this. Professions involving construction, information technology, site maintenance (cooling, welding, wiring specialists…), human resources, document management, quality control or environmental teams…
Spain has the second-highest number of contracts granted by the European Fusion for Energy agency for the ITER project
Companies in the Spanish nuclear sector participate in this project with products, services and technology. What can you tell us about it?
Spain has the second-highest number of contracts granted by F4E, behind France and just ahead of Italy. Some of the companies awarded are common in the nuclear sector, but many others are starting in this field with ITER.
What are Fusion for Energy’s tasks?
F4E is the project catalyser with the European industry, with hundreds of contracts launched since 2008. The road to commercial fusion needs the industry from this very moment.
Can you describe what your day is like?
A working day for the Chief Engineer is a solid block of meetings, documents to revise and design changes to analyse, focusing of achieving 500 MW of fusion as the first step towards commercial reactors… The way!