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Green Light for ITER

Rendering of the ITER machine. The human figure (circled in white) provides a scale. Click to enlarge.

Ministers from the seven Parties of the international nuclear fusion project ITER (China, European Union, India, Japan, the Republic of Korea, the Russian Federation and the United States of America) today signed the agreement to establish the international organization that will implement the project.

ITER (“the way” in Latin) will be the world’s largest experimental facility to demonstrate the scientific and technical feasibility of fusion power. The construction costs of ITER are estimated at €5 billion (US$6.4 billion) over ten years, most of which will be awarded in the form of contracts to industrial companies and fusion research institutions.

Europe will contribute roughly half of the costs of construction, while the other six parties to this joint international venture (Japan, China, the Republic of Korea, the Russian Federation, India, and the USA), will contribute equally to the rest.

Two nuclei, here deuterium and tritium, fuse together to form helium, a neutron, and a large amount of energy. Click to enlarge. Source: ITER.

When the nuclei of light atoms come together at very high temperatures, they fuse and produce enormous amounts of energy. In the core of the sun or a star, the huge gravitational pressure allows this to happen at temperatures of around 10 million degrees Celsius. At the much lower pressures that can be produced on Earth, temperatures to produce fusion need to be much higher—above 100 million degrees Celsius.

To reach these temperatures there must first be powerful heating, and thermal losses must be minimized by keeping the hot fuel particles away from the walls of the container. This is achieved by creating a magnetic cage made by strong magnetic fields, which prevent the particles from escaping. The development of the science and technology involved in this process is the basis of the European fusion program.

The fuel consumption of a fusion power station is projected to be extremely low. A 1 GW fusion plant will need about 100 kg of deuterium and 3 tonnes of natural lithium to operate for a whole year, generating about 7 billion kWh, with no greenhouse gas or other polluting emissions.

To generate the same energy, a coal-fired power plant (without carbon sequestration) requires about 1.5 million tonnes of fuel and produces about 4-5 million tonnes of CO2. The neutrons generated by the fusion reaction cause radioactivity in the materials surrounding the reaction: the walls of the container etc. A careful choice of the materials for these components in future power plants will allow them to be released from regulatory control and possibly recycled about 100 years after the power plant stops operating.

The first meeting of the Interim ITER Council took place at Ministerial level after the signing ceremony. This constituted the first act of the newly established ITER Organization. With the signature of the ITER Agreement and the first Council meeting, the ITER Organization can start its operation on a provisional basis pending the entry into force of the agreement which is expected in the course of 2007.

With the accomplishment of today's meeting, the ITER Organization is able to embark on its mission, as a worldwide international cooperation, to help create a new source of energy for humankind.

—ITER Director General Nominee Kaname Ikeda

The international ITER Organization is responsible for and technically oversees all aspects of the project, from application for construction licenses from the nuclear authorities of the host country, through hardware procurements mostly provided in-kind by the Parties, through operation, expected to begin 10 years later and last 20 years, with its involvement of experimental physicists and engineers worldwide, and ultimately for decommissioning of the plant at its end of life.

Upon its entering into force, the ITER Agreement will have a duration initially of 35 years with the possibility of extension for up to 10 years.

Following on from the largest fusion experiments worldwide, ITER’s goal is to provide the know-how to build subsequently the first electricity-generating power station based on magnetic confinement of high temperature plasma.

ITER will test all the main new features needed for that device: high-temperature-tolerant components, large-scale reliable superconducting magnets, fuel-breeding blankets using high temperature coolants suitable for efficient electricity generation, and safe remote handling and disposal of all irradiated components. ITER’s operating conditions are close to those that will be experienced in a power reactor, and will show how they can be optimized, and how hardware design margins can be reduced to increase efficiency and control cost.

In ITER, scientists will study plasmas in conditions similar to those expected in a electricity-generating fusion power plant. It will generate 500 MW of fusion power for extended periods of time, ten times more then the energy input needed to keep the plasma at the right temperature. It will therefore be the first fusion experiment to produce net power. It will also test all the key technologies, including the heating, control, diagnostic and remote maintenance that will be needed for a real fusion power station.

ITER is a tokamak, in which strong magnetic fields confine a torus-shaped fusion plasma. The device’s main aim is to demonstrate prolonged fusion power production in a deuterium-tritium plasma. Compared with current conceptual designs for future fusion power plants, ITER will include most of the necessary technology, but will be of slightly smaller dimensions and will operate at about one-sixth of the power output level, and will not generate electricity.

The programmatic goal of ITER is “to demonstrate the scientific and technological feasibility of fusion power for peaceful purposes.” After extensive discussions with the scientific community at large, this general goal is now interpreted into three specific technical goals, all concerned with developing a viable fusion power reactor.

  1. ITER should produce more power than it consumes. This is expressed in the value of Q, which represents the amount of thermal energy that is generated by the fusion reactions, divided by the amount of external heating. A value of Q smaller than 1 means that more power is needed to heat the plasma than is generated by fusion.

    JET, presently the largest tokamak in the world, has reached Q=0.65, near the point of break even (Q=1). ITER has to be able to produce Q=10, or Q larger then 5 when pulses are stretched towards a steady state. This is done so that, in the burning plasma, most of the plasma heating comes from the fusion reactions themselves, and so that the plant efficiency can be sufficiently high to have a chance of leading to an economically viable power plant.

  2. ITER should implement and test the key technologies and processes needed for future fusion power plants: including superconducting magnets, components able to withstand high heat loads, and remote handling.

  3. ITER should test and develop concepts for breeding tritium from lithium-containing materials inside thermally efficient high temperature blankets surrounding the plasma. Tritium self-sufficiency of a fusion power plant is a necessary prerequisite, as tritium is not available in nature.




I've been watching this one for a while. They seem to have spent a lot of time wrangling over budget and location ... hopefully now they can actally start to build. the schedule makes for interesting reading.


WE spend that much in a month in Iraq. The priorities of this country are absolutely insane.


This will prove to be far more important than the 1960s era U.S. Apollo moon program. Fossil fuels have now become the equivalent of a ticking clock.

The future of human civilization quite literally depends on being able to produce at least 10 terawatts of clean and renewable energy. ITER can make that possible.


"WE spend that much in a month in Iraq. The priorities of this country are absolutely insane"

I can't believe that!!! For me this amount of money is beyond my imagination limits...and it gets wasted every month by the USA for stealing the ending OIL while HALF THE WORLD hardly can spend the same for the MOTHER of EVERY ENERGY SOURCES, the replication of Sun!

I think we should consider this the PRIMARY GLOBAL GOAL! And today it's just a footnote between war news and bullshit!


The US will have to spend a hell of a lot more than this to come even vaguely close to the Apollo programme. At it's peak annual Apollo spending was around 0.8% of GDP. If the US spent 0.8% of its GDP now that would be about $100 billion. We might just dodge the climate change bullet if that happened.

As stated above, the spending priorities of the West are way out of wack. In the UK we're about to throw god knows how much money away on replacing Trident. Our children won't thank us for it.


The number quoted in dutch press was 10 billion dollar.

10 billion dollar will buy you 10 million solar pannels, that will deliver 1.5 GW Peak and will deliver at least 1 GWh (a lot more if you build it in Spain).

It starts producing energy as soon as the first panel is delivered, and not at some distant point in the unknown future....

Only negative point : no scientitst needed.........

Andy K

Kweksma, 1GW is practically nothing.

If I could trade 1GW of UK generating capacity for the "secret" of Fusion power, then I'd do it in a heartbeat.


Dr. Spok

Very nice project,

except for one little tinny aspect...

where on god's earth are they planning to get the lithium from. There's only 13 million tonnes of Li on this planet and by 2050 it will all be used for batteries: mobile phones, EV, HEV and PHEV's. Hint for the selfmade business people among us start a li recycling plant...or buy stocks of SQM...

Ooh yes there's plenty of lithium in the oceans. Yes indeed, but it costs more energy to isolate the li than the li can produce itself....

just a few others billions of dollars through the drain...

For the love of god, spent that amount of money on quantum dot solar panels and all problems will be gone in the next 30 years.

Rafael Seidl

Scientists have been working on fusion reactors for nigh-on half a century. So far, they've managed Q=2/3, which is actually a long, long way from Q=1, never mind Q=5..10. Note that this new project's duration is already projected to be 35-45 years. While the sums involved in ITER are fairly small, especially considering the multinational nature of the project, we simply don't have that kind of time.

We need to invest heavily in renewable energy, i.e. biofuels, hydro, wind, solar etc. plus energy efficiency (by making the consumption of energy/emission of GHG expensive). The money is available, the EU is spending EUR 400 billion on farm aid between 2007 and 2013. The US is spending almost that much on defense every year - NOT including the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It's a question of priorities, lateral thinking and frankly, the cojones to stand up to vested interests.

richard schumacher

Whatever happened to tauon-catalyzed deuterium-deuterium fusion?

Dr. Spok


The D-D reaction is indeed the only reaction who could in theory produce endless amount of energy. However the "likelyhood" of the D-D reaction is 100 less than the D-T reaction. Seeing the difficulties in the D-D reaction, I'd say the D-D could be possible in may 2156 when earth's temperature is about 132 F.

Dr. Spok


I've been iffy about this whole Iter thing since it started and after listening to this lecture

I've become pretty certain that it's a waste. What this guy is proposing will only take 200 Million and could be deployed in under 10 years. Check it out for yourself.

Thomas Pedersen

Q=2/3 is not far from 1, considering that fusion results have improved at a slightly higher rate than micro processors (Moore's law) for more than thirty years.

De-Tri is the easiest reaction, and there should be plenty of lithium for fusion operation until De-De = He becomes possible, at which point Deuterium reserves in the oceans compare to our current energy consumption as the global coal reserves compared to energy consumption in the Stone Age.

Having said that, I seriously doubt that fusion will be competitive with renewable by 2050, taking into account the exponential decline in renewable energy costs.

Kweksma, your point is hard to miss/ignore...


The whole fossil fuel depletion versus the next big energy source may be one of the true tests of humankind's ingenuity. If we can come up with the next energy source before fossil fuels run out, then we have may have bought ourselves some more time.


Solar and wind are inconsistent. Fusion would enable a constant source of power.

It makes sense to invest in both (renewable & fusion) at the same time but regardless of how much money you throw at it (fusion research), you still need the time and knowledgeable researchers to advance the technology.

Dr. Spok

According to Lithium statistics (usgs) world lithium minerals and brine production in 2000 was around 200.000 tonnes, batteries accounted for 20% of total consumption in 2005, a rise from under 10% in 2000...

Not incorporating the rise that can be expected from HEV and PHEV sales, I'd say another 50 years but probably less.

Paul Dietz

where on god's earth are they planning to get the lithium from.

Like uranium, it can be extracted from seawater. The amount of energy per unit of consumed lithium is so high that this would be feasible, even though the concentration is low (150 ppb, IIRC). It might mean the price of lithium goes so high it can't be used in batteries, though.

I have serious doubts of the practicality of fusion in any case, even if lithium availability is not a problem. Fusion 'solves the wrong problem' with respect to nuclear energy. The problem with nuclear energy is not waste disposal or fuel availability, it is capital cost. Fusion reactors are going to be very expensive compared to fission reactors of equal capacity, and likely will be less reliable due to higher complexity.


An alternative to Lithium shortages used in conjunction with the Fusion Reactor could be using purified monoatomic or possibly diatomic gold of which there is a great surplus here on this planet as well as through the oceans.

Paul Dietz

It might mean the price of lithium goes so high it can't be used in batteries, though.

On further reflection, I realize this is wrong, since batteries can work with depleted lithium (Li-7), which makes up 93% of the element. DT fusion reactor blankets would consume mostly Li-6, although some Li-7 might be included for neutron multiplication via the (n,nt) reaction.

Paul Dietz

Whatever happened to tauon-catalyzed deuterium-deuterium fusion?

I assume you mean muon catalyzed fusion (tau particles are far too heavy and decay far too quickly). Mu-cat fusion was never quite able to achieve enough fusions per muon to make the energy case close. Handling hot, high pressure, high density DT gas would also be a real engineering nightmare, even if the physics did work out.

Dr. Spok

It is correct that Lithium is a lot more common in seawater (.18 ppm by weight, says CRC handbook), than either Uranium (.003) or Thorium (.00005).
That is the good news. The bad news is:

Assume (probably optimistically) that the cost of extracting the lithium from seawater is the same as the cost of boiling that water. (Actually, desalination methods are known to remove salts from water for less than the cost of boiling, but considering we also must seperate the lithium from all the other kinds of salts,
present in far higher concentrations, and we must isotope-seperate the lithium-6 from lithium-7, my present assumption still seems optimistic.) Well, the fusion energy we can get from the .18 milligrams of Lithium (and hence 11.8 micrograms Lithium-6)
in a liter of seawater (assuming Deuterium is free and ignoring the Li isotopic enrichment costs) is (assuming 100% fusion efficiency)4.2 megajoules. Meanwhile the energy needed to boil that liter is 2.3 megajoules. So if fusion power generation is <=53% efficient (and note, the best steam turbine power plants are
only 40% efficient, so it is absolutely certain fusion plants will be <40% efficient) then in fact, it will cost MORE energy to extract the lithium from seawater, than you can get from fusion.


Dr. Spok:

What happens to your calcs if you pipe seawater to a desert to remove the water first? Or if you include the value of desalinated water in the equation. How would that compare to solar from the same tract of desert?

Paul Dietz

Assume (probably optimistically) that the cost of extracting the lithium from seawater is the same as the cost of boiling that water.

This is actually quite pessimistic. The extraction would be done with selective absorbers, which are potentially far more energy efficient. This is also how uranium (at 3 ppb) could be extracted from seawater.

Examples (for lithium): (near the bottom)

Dr. Spok

Don't forget that the electrical output will be lower than 40% (magnetic field!) or compared to 1 liter of water 1,7 MJ or 0,5 kWh to isolate the Li-6 (again 100% fusion efficiency). To give an idea: particles of seawater contain 180 particles of lithium, of which only 12 particles are Li-6 (isotope-separtion!)...It's okay to disagree but I still have and I will have strong doubts about this ocean-pathway.

Like I said in the beginning, nice project, nice R&D but why bother going through all this trouble: highly radioactive gaseous waste, physics, superconductors...
the answer to our problems is really simple, in stead of mimicking the sun, let us capture the sun's energy. In 1 year the suns emits 3.600.000 Exajoule on our earth. Compare this our primary energy consumption: 465 Exajoule in 2005...I'm betting on either Quantum dot solar panels or Brownian optical rectenna's. Future will tell. And a good day to you sir...


Nice link, the CEO's of google got enough cash to throw at this. If it takes off, the $500 a share stock might be justified in a few years.

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