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January/February 2010

ITER and the Future of Fusion

ITER – Latin for “the way”– is an advanced tokamak, or toroidal fusion reactor, being designed and built as part of an international collaboration to demonstrate the scientific and technological feasibility of fusion energy – the power source of the sun and stars – and to enable studies of self-heating burning plasmas. The United States is one of seven international partners in the ITER project, with the U.S. ITER Project Office hosted by Oak Ridge National Laboratory. The experimental fusion reactor will be assembled at Cadarache, France, using components fabricated in the United States and in the other partner nations — the People’s Republic of China, the European Union, India, Japan, the Republic of Korea and the Russian Federation. The governments of the ITER partners represent more than half the world’s population.

In the U.S., ITER work is supported by the Office of Science in the U.S. Department of Energy, with the project consisting of the procurement of hardware (including supporting research and development and design); assignment of personnel (engineers and scientists) to the ITER site; and funding for the U.S. share of common expenses (personnel infrastructure, assembly and installation).

The ITER project confronts the grand challenge of creating and understanding a sustained burning plasma for the first time. The distinguishing characteristic of a burning plasma is that it is self-heating; the energy coming from the fusion reactions in the plasma are sufficient to heat the plasma. Achieving this strongly interacting burning state requires resolving complex physics issues and integrating new and improved technologies. A clear and comprehensive scientific understanding of the burning plasma state is needed to confidently extrapolate plasma behavior and related technology beyond ITER to a fusion power plant.

The ITER device is designed to generate 500 megawatts of fusion power — 10 times more than the external heating power. ITER’s plasma will be large enough to enable studies of physics phenomena at the size and scale of a future commercial reactor. It will be the premier scientific tool for exploring and testing expectations for plasma behavior in the fusion burning plasma regime.

ITER will also test many of the key technologies needed to use fusion as a practical energy source and to validate industrial production techniques for the large and high performance components needed for future fusion power plants. The project is expected to play a critical role in advancing the worldwide development of fusion as a commercial energy source.

“The ITER project is a unique opportunity for the Department of Energy’s national laboratories, U.S. universities and U.S. industry to play key roles in creating, controlling and studying an extreme state of matter that will be at the core of a fusion reactor,” says Ned Sauthoff, Ph.D., U.S. ITER project director. “Most significantly, fusion has the potential to provide future generations and all nations with a safe, environmentally benign and virtually unlimited energy source.”

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