After 30 Years Of Construction, Fusion Reactor Ready To Be Tested

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Andrew Follett Energy and Science Reporter
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After almost 30 years of construction, an experimental French fusion reactor is finally about to be tested.

The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor’s (ITER) Tore Supra tokamak in France will start its first set of experiments this coming spring. It will heat gas to several million degrees Celsius and contain the plasma from the resulting reaction. Construction of the tokamak began in the 1980s.

These experiments are intended to collect scientific data that will ultimately allow researchers to create plasma which lasts for longer periods of time, a critical necessity for fusion power. The project is also intended to minimize the risk of future delays and cost overruns.

Fusion power could be “too cheap to meter,” meaning the cost of generating new power would be below the cost of determining how much power an individual was using, effectively making electricity generation nearly free. Unlike existing nuclear fission reactors, which produce energy by splitting atoms, fusion reactors would generate power by combining atoms.

Cost overruns have set back plans to other parts of the ITER by 10 years and $4.6 billion, according to a report by the French newspaper Les Echos. The project has a long history of delays and cost increases. ITER was originally expected to cost approximately $5.7 billion, but overruns, design changes and rising raw material prices saw the amount almost triple to $ 14.9 billion in 2015.

The total estimated cost overruns will add up to almost $20 billion, which will be paid for by the project’s financial backers, including the U.S., China, the European Union, Russia, India and Japan.

Other recent breakthroughs in fusion could restart the atomic age, an era when nuclear progress was lauded as a pinnacle of human achievement. Operational fusion power would put most other forms of electricity generation permanently out of business and could occur very soon.

In America, Lockheed Martin Skunk Works is developing a compact fusion reactor small enough to fit in a truck, which could generate enough electricity to power 80,000 homes.

A fusion reactor in Germany began testing in December. German engineers from the Max Planck Institute successfully activated an experimental nuclear fusion reactor and successfully managed to suspend plasma for the first time. The German reactor was reasonably priced compared to ITER, as it only took 19 years and $1.1 billion to build. The reactor passed the major technical milestone of generating its first plasma, which had a duration of one-tenth of a second and achieved a temperature of around one million degrees Celsius. It could demonstrate the first stable artificial nuclear fusion reaction sometime next year.

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