ITER: Throwing Good Money after Bad

According to the journal Nature, European nations hope to redirect more than €1 billion (US$1.25 billion) earmarked for research grants to make up a budget shortfall at the experimental ITER fusion reactor.  In an article that appeared in the July 7 issue, the editors note,

The proposal has alarmed scientists, who say that it will rob researchers of vital funds at a time when governments are planning to scale back domestic research budgets in response to the global economic downturn.

This is surely an understatement.  If I were a European scientist, I would be screaming bloody murder.  Like the International Space Station, ITER is a white elephant whose potential benefits will never come close to justifying the cost of building it.  It’s projected cost has tripled since it was estimated in 2001.  The fond hopes of the aging scientists who have devoted their careers to the pursuit of magnetic fusion energy will not be realized.  Like the International Space Station, ITER’s real effect will be to serve as a huge financial vacuum cleaner, soaking up billions in research money that could be much better spent elsewhere, including in the field of fusion energy research itself.

The problem with magnetic fusion, at least in the form represented by ITER, is that, while it is scientifically feasible, it will never be able to compete with alternative methods of producing electric power in terms of cost.  There are certainly hundreds of reactor design studies out there that claim the opposite, but, as the future will demonstrate if ITER is ever built, they are all wrong.  Among other things, the cost of a tritium economy has been grossly underestimated.  Tritium is a heavy form of hydrogen whose nucleus contains two neutrons in addition to the usual single proton.  Mixed with deuterium, another heavy isotope of hydrogen with a single extra neutron, it will be an essential fuel material in reactors such as ITER.  Deuterium occurs naturally, and is relatively common.  In other than trace amounts, tritium does not.  It must be produced artificially.  In order to produce the quantities necessary to keep a reactor like ITER running indefinitely, it will be necessary to surround the burning plasma with a thick layer of lithium.  Fast neutrons produced by fusion in the burning plasma can then produce the necessary tritium in nuclear reactions with this material. 

However, there is a slight problem.  Tritium is highly radioactive, with a half-life, the time it takes for half of any given quantity to undergo nuclear decay, of something over 12 years.  In spite of the fact that hydrogen is a notoriously slippery substance, passing with ease right through some types of metal, it will be necessary to control and contain kilograms of this material in a working magnetic fusion reactor.  In addition to its intrinsic radioactive hazard, tritium must also be carefully guarded to keep it from falling into the wrong hands.  For example, if terrorists were able to secure enough special nuclear material to build a nuclear bomb, they could potentially greatly increase its explosive yield by using tritium in the process known as boosting.  All this, not to mention the legal challenges that NIMBY’s are sure to mount to avoid living next to such an objectionable material, is unlikely to be cheap.

This and other potential show stoppers will insure that magnetic fusion reactors like ITER will never be able to compete economically.  Don’t believe me?  Wait and see.  It would be much better to use the increasingly scarce research dollars now being used to fund this particular white elephant on smaller projects, including fusion research projects, where it could do some real good.  Who knows.  They might even result in the discovery of a way to finesse Mother Nature after all and build fusion reactors that don’t need tritium and are economically competitive.


Author: Helian

I am Doug Drake, and I live in Maryland, not far from Washington, DC. I am a graduate of West Point, and I hold a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering from the University of Wisconsin. My blog reflects my enduring fascination with human nature and human morality.

5 thoughts on “ITER: Throwing Good Money after Bad”

  1. Look into Polywell Fusion which could burn D-D or H-B11. There is also Tri-Alpha Energy and Focus Fusion.

    I like Polywell.

  2. There are a lot of bright people thinking about the problem. Maybe one of them will eventually figure out a way to burn D-D or H-B11 in a tabletop machine. It would solve a lot of problems, assuming it can’t be used to build a pure fusion weapon.

  3. Focus Fusion is not “tabletop” (about 2 tons, housed in a home-garage-sized service building, and does fusion in micron-sized bursts. About 5MW (limited by electrode cooling tech). No waste. Costs about 1/20 – 1/10 best conventional, both capital and operating.

    If the small private funding stream holds up, licenses for manufacture will be available world-wide in about 5 yrs., give or take 1 or 2.

    Finesses the “steady state” containment problems all other approaches have, including Polywell.

    And MUCH cheaper.

  4. I agree that building such a big reactor is not a very good idea. Even if ITER crosses breakeven, it is already very expensive. And this is not even a reactor, for that you will have to build DEMO. I do not mind putting money in ITER but other alternatives also deserve equal/more attention. I don’t know much about alternative ways to achieve fusion, but we should be paying more attention into renewable energy sources like solar/wind and thermal. The best part is that solar/wind and thermal power plants already exist. They only need to be tweaked and made more efficient so that they can compete with conventional sources. That is anytime easier than building a fusion reactor which still hasn’t even achieved breakeven.

  5. One thing all of you guys are not considering are the fact that this, if achieved, will be the sole power-provider for the entire world for years. We will not be able to out-pace the energy supplied by this machine for some time.

    Another thing you guys are not considering, which goes against my beliefs in the matter, is the fact that if constructed improperly, this could single-handedly be one of the most dangerous inventions known to man:

    1) 10,000 tons of Magnets that will produce a magnetic field 200,000 times stronger than the earth’s own magnetic field.

    2) The fuel burning within the machine will burn at a temperature 10 times hotter than the surface of the sun.

    The combination of these two extremely high numbers, if one flaw in the building process dealing with either of these were inaccurate even by a very minute amount, the fuel could pour out or the magnets could shift, and even if it’s only for a split second we could be burned by in excess of 150 million degrees celsius or risk the magnetic field of the earth being permanently messed up.

    Many other things pour into the factors that make this machine good/bad. One thing can be determined by all of these facts/assumptions, this method of energy WILL need to be the future, we cannot avoid it. Renewable energy is all fine and dandy, but we will never be able to expand those to the size that we will need them to be. They simply are not capable of the energy outputs fusion processes are theoretically capable of.

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