Several U.S. politicians have criticized America’s role in the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) project. An international fusion research facility under construction in France, the ITER is expected to go live by 2030 in a bid to discover the secrets of unlimited energy. A new report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine denounces views of politicians and asks the U.S. to continue participating in the experiment.
US And ITER
When ITER was first proposed, its estimated cost was pegged at US$10 billion. The U.S. was supposed to cover just 9 percent of the cost, or US$900 million. However, the calculations have gone awry and ITER’s cost has ballooned to unimaginable levels, with the U.S. alone contributing around US$4.7 to US$6.5 billion to the project.
This has triggered huge protests from some politicians in the U.S. who claim the research to be a waste of American taxpayers money. For 2019, the U.S. will only chip in US$132 million to ITER, well below the expected US$250 million contribution.
The new report argues that America should stick with ITER and even start building its own independent fusion energy reactor. It advises increasing spending on fusion research by US$200 million per year. The views are said to be a reflection of the American scientific community engaged in fusion technologies.
“We listened very carefully to the community, especially some of the younger scientists who are very active in the field, and what we heard from the scientists is a desire to get on with fusion energy… We’re not just studying this thing, we’re trying to see if it really does work,” Michael Mauel, a fusion physicist at Columbia University and co-chair of the 19-member report committee, said to Science.
In nuclear fusion, atomic nuclei fuse together, providing an unlimited source of energy that can completely eliminate the need for fossil fuels. For fusion to take place, the atomic nuclei have to be heated to high temperatures of 10 to 15 million degrees Celsius. To reach such temperatures, the fourth state of matter called plasma is used.
However, to sustain the fusion, it is necessary to create “burning plasma,” wherein the fusion itself provides the heat necessary to maintain the temperature of the plasma. As a result, the supply for external heating power can be drastically reduced, ensuring that the energy output is always far greater than energy input.
Of all fusion experiments being conducted across the world, ITER shows the most promise. This is largely due to the fact that ITER is a tokamak reactor that uses a magnetic field to confine hot plasma.
“Only the tokamak has demonstrated the properties necessary for fusion energy. With the completion and operation of ITER, the tokamak will be the device that first demonstrates a burning fusion plasma with net power gain. So in the near term, the tokamak provides the quickest path to fusion energy,” John Wright, from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), said to Newsweek.
The success of ITER can literally herald in a new age of human civilization with unlimited, cheap energy available for all. The emission of greenhouse gases can be curtailed. In addition, fusion reactors do not have the meltdown possibility that current nuclear reactors have. This is the reason why the report requests the U.S. to continue funding ITER.