US committee recommends participation in the ITER project

The preparations for national FIRE experiment could be discontinued

September 01, 2002

The Fusion Energy Sciences Advisory Committee (FESAC) recommends in a recent report the return of the USA as a full partner to the international ITER cooperation, with an annual financial contribution to the project of 100 million US dollars. The committee, which advises the US Energy Secretary in fusion research matters, was assigned the task of proposing a strategy for the USA aimed at producing a burning and energy-supplying fusion plasma.

The goal of fusion research is to develop a power plant which, like the sun, derives energy from fusion of atomic nuclei. To ignite the fusion fire, the fuel – a hydrogen plasma – has to be confined in magnetic fields and heated to high temperatures. The next step in international fusion research is the ITER experimental reactor, now being jointly prepared by the fusion programmes of Europe, Japan, and Russia with an investment volume of some 4 billion euros. ITER is to demonstrate that energy production by nuclear fusion is physically and technically possible. The USA, initially also a partner in the cooperation, had withdrawn from the preparation phase in 1998.

The 48-page expertise ("A Burning Plasma Program Strategy to Advance Fusion Energy") investigates as "attractive options” two proposed fusion devices: the ITER international test reactor and the FIRE project, proposed by the USA, a much smaller experiment likewise aimed at producing a burning plasma, but under operation conditions far from those of future power plant plasmas. The summary of the report states: "Since ITER is at an advanced stage, has the most comprehensive science and technology program, and is supported internationally, we should now seek to join the ITER negotiations. (...) The desired role is that the U.S. participates as a partner in the full range of activities, including full participation in the governance of the project and the program. We anticipate that this level of effort will likely require additional funding of approximately $100M/yr. The minimum acceptable role for the U.S. is at a level of effort that would allow the U.S. to propose and implement science experiments, to make contributions to the activities during the construction phase of the device, and to have access to experimental and engineering data equal to that of all partners."
The US Department of Energy is advised to complete its negotiations with the ITER partners by July 2004. If these prove successful, it is recommended that the US participate in ITER; the preparations for FIRE should then be discontinued.

The expertise was given a very positive reception by Ray Orbach, head of the Office of Science in the US Department of Energy, as he stated to the "Bulletin of Science Policy" of the American Institute of Physics on 13 September 2002. Fusion energy for him is very important in meeting the world's future energy needs. He will make efforts to get the US involved already in the site negotiations for ITER. Sites have been offered by the French, Spanish, Japanese, and Canadian governments.

Prof. Dr. Alexander M. Bradshaw, Scientific Director of the Max Planck Institute for Plasma Physics, one of the large centres of fusion research in Europe, commented: "The FESAC committee contains well-known physicists and fusion scientists. Its view that the US should return to ITER rather than start a rival project is a great compliment. It confirms that ITER is the appropriate next step in international fusion research”.

Isabella Milch

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