Europe continues fusion reactor funding

23rd April 2014

The ITER experimental fusion reactor has secured funding to take it to the operational level. Sean Ottewell reports.

Following the European Parliament's endorsement of the EU budget for the next seven years, a research budget of EUR80 billion has been secured. Part of this will ensure funding until at least 2020 for ITER, the thermonuclear experimental reactor currently under construction by the ITER International Fusion Energy Organisation at the Cadarache facility in the city of Saint-Paul-lès-Durance in south-eastern France.

A fusion reactor is an apparatus that takes the enormous volume of fusion energy generated when light atomic nuclei in the reactor's fuel, such as deuterium and tritium, fuse in a plasma environment to become heavier nuclei such as helium. The energy released by this reaction is used to generate power.

Seven partners are participating in this large-scale international project: Japan, the EU, the US, Russia, Korea, China and India. Start-up is planned for 2020.

The funding agreement has been welcomed by Tim Hender, fusion programme manager at Culham Centre for Fusion Energy (CCFE) in the UK. The centre has gained long experience in fusion reactions with its JET and MAST tokomak reactors. "This is good news for European fusion research, for JET and, of course, for CCFE. JET and MAST can continue to address key issues for ITER and the planned work will also make significant strides in developing the DEMO prototype fusion power plant," he said.

Key to the success of ITER is the series of toroidal field (TF) coils around the central vacuum vessel. These form a magnetic 'cage' that confines and shapes the hot plasma (Fig. 1).

CCFE has gained experience of these with its MAST and JET work, but the coils on ITER will be much larger and create a stronger magnetic field. Any failure here could be catastrophic.

Based on its work on the back-up systems it has developed, CCFE has won a contract from ITER to update its magnet failure predictions systems.

"My role is to look at the 'what ifs'," said project leader Shangliang Zheng. "If a magnet fails, what effect will there be on the current and temperature? What will the consequences of thermal damage be? Recent advances in computing mean we're able to run more detailed scenario models so ITER can build on the comprehensive plans they already have in place."

In addition to the obvious need to guard against accidents, there is another, more immediate reason for carrying out the work. If French nuclear regulators are not satisfied that all safety questions continue to be fully addressed, they have the power to step in and halt design and construction of the magnets, which would be a setback for the whole ITER project.

"It makes sense to get as much information as we can about the risks, however minimal," says Zheng. "With something as important as this, prevention is far better than cure."

Another beneficiary of the ongoing funding is Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (MHI). The company has received an order from the Japan Atomic Energy Agency (JAEA) for the manufacture of two TF coils. The JAEA is the Japan's designated domestic agency for the ITER project and this is the third order that it has placed with MHI for TF coils. The ITER is to be configured from a total of 19 TF coils, including one in reserve, of which Japan has been contracted to provide nine.

MHI's role in the manufacture of Japan's TF coils is to provide the plates for inserting the superconductors and the containers to hold the actual coils. Mitsubishi Electric Corporation is in charge of producing the coil winding packs.

JAEA has been undertaking development of fusion reactors since the 1960s, and MHI has been participating in this effort from an early stage. To date the company has taken responsibility for developing and manufacturing many related devices, including the JT-602, a core apparatus within Japan's own fusion research and development programme.

In other developments, ITER's council has approved a proposal that operations will commence with a full beryllium and tungsten divertor (inner wall). The original plan was to use a carbon-fibre divertor that would have been replaced during the second phase of operations with a beryllium/tungsten solution. This significant decision, which will result in cost savings of hundreds of millions of Euros for the project, comes after more than two years of R&D on the tungsten divertor that was supported by successful experiments and testing carried out in the Institute of Electrophysical Apparatus in St Petersburg, Russia, and on the European Tokamak JET at Culham.

In addition, the ITER test convoy - an 800 tonne trailer replicating the dimensions of ITER's largest and heaviest component loads- has successfully travelled the 104 km required from the site of manufacture to Saint-Paul-lès-Durance in order to assess the route. This successful precursor paves the way for the deliveries of actual ITER components which will begin this summer.

UK offers £13 million for nuclear technologies

The UK's Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) has joined with other public bodies to open up opportunities for UK businesses, offering a total of up to £13 million investment for new technologies covering new build, current operations and decommissioning.

The collaboration is aimed at helping UK-based businesses take advantage of the opportunities arising following the recent agreement on Hinkley Point C, the first nuclear power station to be built in the country for almost 20 years.

The funds will be made available this year as part of a drive to grow a robust, sustainable UK supply chain through the development of innovative products and services for the nuclear sector. The initiative will focus on key technology areas such as construction, manufacturing, operation, maintenance, and decommissioning and waste.

Business and energy minister Michael Fallon said: "We are committed to nuclear power as part of the low carbon mix of our future energy supply. And through our nuclear industrial strategy we are working in partnership with industry to grasp the multi-billion pound long-term opportunities for UK companies and for thousands of highly skilled jobs. We want to build a robust UK based supply chain for existing and future nuclear power stations."

In 2012, £18 million was invested in nuclear R&D through a partnership between the TSB bank, NDA, the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC). The 35 projects, which received funding following a competitive submission process, are ongoing.

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