The World’s Largest Nuclear Reactor Is Actually Not Going To Power Up For 15 Years

The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) in France, the world’s largest nuclear fusion project, has faced a significant delay. According to Director-General Pietro Barabaschi, the first test of ITER will now achieve full magnetic energy in 2036, a three-year delay relative to the 2016 reference. The deuterium-tritium operation phase is pushed to 2039, representing a four-year delay. This setback postpones the prospect of commercial fusion energy, leaving it an elusive solution to the climate crisis for now. Barabaschi emphasized that relying solely on fusion energy is impractical given the pressing global issues. He advocated for investment in a variety of energy technologies. The delays were attributed to several factors, including the Covid-19 pandemic, which disrupted the supply chain, reduced workforce availability, and caused shipping backlogs. Additionally, the fabrication of unique ITER components proved more challenging than anticipated.

Originally, ITER’s ‘First Plasma’ test was scheduled for 2025, involving a brief, low-energy machine test using hydrogen. This was to be followed by four stages of assembly and operation, culminating in full plasma current by 2033. However, this timeline was deemed unrealistic given the current component availability, leading to a revised roadmap. The new baseline envisions the start of research operations in 2034, with full magnetic energy achieved by 2036.

A notable update in the ITER design is the switch from beryllium to tungsten for the First Wall, the plasma-facing material. ITER, a collaboration of over 30 countries, utilizes the tokamak approach. This involves heating hydrogen fuel in a donut-shaped vacuum chamber to form plasma, replicating conditions on the Sun. The reactor’s magnets, made of niobium-tin and niobium-titanium, are cooled to near absolute zero to become superconducting.

Despite the delays, the ambitious ITER project remains a beacon of hope for future fusion energy, demonstrating the complex challenges of harnessing this powerful yet elusive energy source.

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