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ITER fusion project celebrates start of assembly

The $25 billion international fusion project known as ITER marked the start of its five-year reactor assembly process today with a ceremony tailored for the coronavirus era.

French President Emmanuel Macron was the headliner, appearing on a big screen set up at the construction site in France’s Provence region.

“ITER is clearly an act of confidence in the future,” Macron told a small gathering of dignitaries who were spread out in the ITER Assembly Hall to observe social-distancing guidelines. “Breakthroughs in human history have always proceeded from daring bets, from journeys fraught with difficulty.”

Difficulties in the form of rising costs and delayed schedules have dogged ITER for more than a decade. When I visited the site in 2007, planners anticipated that operations would start up in 2016 — and the project’s cost was listed at $13 billion.

In an interview with Science’s Daniel Clery, ITER Director-General Bernard Bigot estimated that the rate of spending is around €1 million ($1.2 million) per day.  Clery’s report also noted that the first piece of the facility’s doughnut-shaped tokamak reactor, the nearly 100-foot-wide cryostat base, was lowered into the assembly pit in May.

Components for ITER are being provided as in-kind contributions by the project’s seven members: China, the European Union, India, Japan, Russia, South Korea and the United States. Indian contractors built the cryostat, for example, while the U.S. is responsible for the central solenoid magnet (built by General Atomics).

Experiments at ITER are expected eventually to surpass the break-even point for a nuclear fusion reaction — a small-scale version of the reaction that powers the sun. That could blaze a trail for future commercial reactors potentially capable of generating cheap, clean, safe, abundant electricity.

ITER follows the conventional approach to fusion power, known as magnetic confinement fusion. Meanwhile, several commercial ventures — including General Fusion, based near Vancouver, B.C. — are trying to commercialize fusion power on a shorter timetable using less conventional approaches.

By Alan Boyle

Mastermind of Cosmic Log, contributing editor at GeekWire, author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference," president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing. Check out "About Alan Boyle" for more fun facts.

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