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(I.T.E.R) A SAFE, CLEAN FORM OF NUCLEAR POWER: NUCLEAR FUSION DEVICE's FIRST TEST WITH HYDROGEN DECLARED A SUCCESS IN GERMANY


German Chancellor Angela Merkel, center, who holds a doctorate in physics, personally pressed the button at Wednesday's launch of an experiment they hope will advance the quest for nuclear fusion, considered a clean and safe form of nuclear power. (Bernd Wuestneck/dpa via Associated Press)
The Associated Press -Updated: Feb 05, 2016 - Scientists in Germany flipped the switch Wednesday on an experiment they hope will advance the quest for nuclear fusion, considered a clean and safe form of nuclear power. Following nine years of construction and testing, researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Plasma Physics in Greifswald injected a tiny amount of hydrogen into a doughnut-shaped device — then zapped it with the equivalent of 6,000 microwave ovens.  The resulting super-hot gas, known as plasma, lasted just a fraction of a second before cooling down again, long enough for scientists to confidently declare the start of their experiment a success. "Everything went well today," said Robert Wolf, a senior scientist involved with the project. "With a system as complex as this you have to make sure everything works perfectly and there's always a risk." Among the difficulties is how to cool the complex arrangement of magnets required to keep the plasma floating inside the device, Wolf said. Scientists looked closely at the hiccups experienced during the start-up of the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland more than five years ago to avoid similar mistakes, he said. World-wide effort The experiment in Greifswald is part of a world-wide effort to harness nuclear fusion, a process in which atoms join at extremely high temperatures and release large amounts of energy that's similar to what occurs inside the sun. Advocates acknowledge that the technology is probably many decades away, but argue that — once achieved — it could replace fossil fuels and conventional nuclear fission reactors. Construction has already begun in southern France on ITER, a huge international research reactor that uses a strong electric current to trap plasma inside a doughnut-shaped device long enough for fusion to take place. The device, known as a tokamak, was conceived by Soviet physicists in the 1950s and is considered fairly easy to build, but extremely difficult to operate. The next big thing: Fusion power and ITER (International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER)The team in Greifswald, a port city on Germany's Baltic coast, is focused on a rival technology invented by the American physicist Lyman Spitzer in 1950. Called a stellarator, the device has the same doughnut shape as a tokamak but uses a complicated system of magnetic coils instead of a current to achieve the same result. READ MORE...

ALSO: The Next Big Thing - Fusion power and ITER


ITER under construction in France
Download Podcast Our series on Big Science begins with a look at the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, ITER. Over the course of this season, we'll be taking a look at some of the biggest projects in science, and the unique challenges and struggles they face, with a series we're calling "The Next Big Thing." This week, we're looking at ITER, the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, currently under construction in France.
According to Dr. Stewart Prager, the Director of the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, the US government's leading fusion research facility, ITER is meant to prove the practicality of generating electricity using nuclear fusion, which has the potential to produce clean, safe, and plentiful energy. ITER is the largest and most expensive experiment in history, but early in the project, it is a decade behind schedule and many billions of dollars over budget. Quirks producer Jim Lebans explains why......

ALSO: INTRODUCING! THE 'I.T.E.R' - A Star in a Bottle
[An audacious plan to create a new energy source could save the planet from catastrophe. But time is running out]


Commercial reactors modelled on ITER could generate power with no carbon, virtually no pollution, and scant radioactive waste. CREDIT ILLUSTRATION BY JACOB ESCOBEDO
Years from now—maybe in a decade, maybe sooner—if all goes according to plan, the most complex machine ever built will be switched on in an Alpine forest in the South of France. The machine, called the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, or ITER, will stand a hundred feet tall, and it will weigh twenty-three thousand tons—more than twice the weight of the Eiffel Tower. At its core, densely packed high-precision equipment will encase a cavernous vacuum chamber, in which a super-hot cloud of heavy hydrogen will rotate faster than the speed of sound, twisting like a strand of DNA as it circulates. The cloud will be scorched by electric current (a surge so forceful that it will make lightning seem like a tiny arc of static electricity), and bombarded by concentrated waves of radiation. Beams of uncharged particles—the energy in them so great it could vaporize a car in seconds—will pour into the chamber, adding tremendous heat. In this way, the circulating hydrogen will become ionized, and achieve temperatures exceeding two hundred million degrees Celsius—more than ten times as hot as the sun at its blazing core. No natural phenomenon on Earth will be hotter. Like the sun, the cloud will go nuclear. The zooming hydrogen atoms, in a state of extreme kinetic excitement, will slam into one another, fusing to form a new element—helium—and with each atomic coupling explosive energy will be released: intense heat, gamma rays, X rays, a torrential flux of fast-moving neutrons propelled in every direction. READ MORE...


READ FULL MEDIA REPORTS HERE:

Nuclear fusion device's 1st test with hydrogen declared a success
[Wendelstein 7-X stellarator in Greifswald successfully generated a plasma for a fraction of a second]


A plant creates plasma from hydrogen for the first time, at the Wendelstein 7-X nuclear fusion research centre of the Max Planck Institute for Plasma Physics in Greifswald, Germany, Wednesday Feb. 3, 2016. (Bernd Wuestneck/dpa via Associated Press)

Greifswald, GERMAN, FEBRUARY 8, 2016 (CBC CANADA) The Associated Press -Updated: Feb 05, 2016 - Scientists in Germany flipped the switch Wednesday on an experiment they hope will advance the quest for nuclear fusion, considered a clean and safe form of nuclear power.

Following nine years of construction and testing, researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Plasma Physics in Greifswald injected a tiny amount of hydrogen into a doughnut-shaped device — then zapped it with the equivalent of 6,000 microwave ovens.


German Chancellor Angela Merkel , center, who holds a doctorate in physics, personally pressed the button at Wednesday's launch of an experiment they hope will advance the quest for nuclear fusion, considered a clean and safe form of nuclear power. (Bernd Wuestneck/dpa via Associated Press)

The resulting super-hot gas, known as plasma, lasted just a fraction of a second before cooling down again, long enough for scientists to confidently declare the start of their experiment a success.

"Everything went well today," said Robert Wolf, a senior scientist involved with the project. "With a system as complex as this you have to make sure everything works perfectly and there's always a risk."

Among the difficulties is how to cool the complex arrangement of magnets required to keep the plasma floating inside the device, Wolf said. Scientists looked closely at the hiccups experienced during the start-up of the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland more than five years ago to avoid similar mistakes, he said.

World-wide effort

The experiment in Greifswald is part of a world-wide effort to harness nuclear fusion, a process in which atoms join at extremely high temperatures and release large amounts of energy that's similar to what occurs inside the sun.

Advocates acknowledge that the technology is probably many decades away, but argue that — once achieved — it could replace fossil fuels and conventional nuclear fission reactors.

Construction has already begun in southern France on ITER, a huge international research reactor that uses a strong electric current to trap plasma inside a doughnut-shaped device long enough for fusion to take place. The device, known as a tokamak, was conceived by Soviet physicists in the 1950s and is considered fairly easy to build, but extremely difficult to operate.

The next big thing: Fusion power and ITER (International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER)

The team in Greifswald, a port city on Germany's Baltic coast, is focused on a rival technology invented by the American physicist Lyman Spitzer in 1950. Called a stellarator, the device has the same doughnut shape as a tokamak but uses a complicated system of magnetic coils instead of a current to achieve the same result.

READ MORE...


Construction has already begun in southern France on ITER, a huge international research reactor that uses a strong electric current to trap plasma inside a doughnut-shaped device long enough for fusion to take place.

The Greifswald device should be able to keep plasma in place for much longer than a tokamak, said Thomas Klinger, who heads the project.

"The stellarator is much calmer," he said in a telephone interview. "It's far harder to build, but easier to operate."

Known as the Wendelstein 7-X stellarator, or W7-X, the 400-million-euro ($609 million) device was first fired up in December using helium, which is easier to heat. Helium also has the advantage of "cleaning" any minute dirt particles left behind during the construction of the device.

Not designed to produce energy

Over the coming years the device, which isn't designed to produce energy itself, will slowly increase the temperature and duration of the plasma with the goal of keeping it stable for 30 minutes, Wolf said.

"If we manage 2025, that's good. Earlier is even better," he said.


Nuclear Fusion- Known as the Wendelstein 7-X stellarator, or W7-X, the 400-million-euro ($609 million) device was first fired up in December using helium, which is easier to heat. (Stefan Sauer/Associated Press)

Scientists hope that the W7-X experiment will allow them to test many of the extreme conditions such devices will be subjected to if they are ever to generate power.

David Anderson, a professor of physics at the University of Wisconsin who isn't involved in the project, said the project in Greifswald looks promising so far.

"The impressive results obtained in the startup of the machine were remarkable," he said in an email. "This is usually a difficult and arduous process. The speed with which W7-X became operational is a testament to the care and quality of the fabrication of the device and makes a very positive statement about the stellarator concept itself. W7-X is a truly remarkable achievement and the worldwide fusion community looks forward to many exciting results."

While critics have said the pursuit of nuclear fusion is an expensive waste of money that could be better spent on other projects, Germany has forged ahead in funding the Greifswald project, costs for which have reached 1.06 billion euros ($1.61 billion) in the past 20 years if staff salaries are included.

Chancellor Angela Merkel, who holds a doctorate in physics, personally pressed the button at Wednesday's launch.

"As an industrial nation we want to show that an affordable, safe, reliable and sustainable power supply is possible, without any loss of economic competitiveness," she said. "The advantages of fusion energy are obvious."


Germany Nuclear Fusion 'The advantages of fusion energy are obvious,' said German chancellor Angela Merkel, standing next to the head of the Max Planck Institute for Plasma Physics Sibylle Guenter , left, and Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania governor, Erwin Sellering, second right at the Wendelstein 7-X' nuclear fusion research centre Wednesday. ( Bernd Wuestneck/dpa via Associated Press)

The Polish government, European Union and the U.S. Department of Energy also contributed funding for the project. The U.S. contribution, which included crucial error-correcting coils and imaging equipment, gives American scientists a chance to help develop cutting-edge technology and participate in the experiment, said Edmund J. Synakowski, the agency's associate director for fusion energy sciences.

Although there are about a dozen stellarator experiments around the world, including in the U.S., Japan, Australia and Europe, scientists say the Greifswald device is the first to match the performance of tokamaks.

"If the United States isn't at the table once scientists start asking questions that can only be answered here, then we're out of the game," Synakowski said.

Fusion reactors still 10 years out as Lockheed Martin announces breakthrough Nuclear fusion hits energy milestone


CBC.CA (FLASHBACK NEWS REPORT) Saturday September 13, 2014

The Next Big Thing: Fusion power and ITER


ITER under construction in France

Download Podcast Our series on Big Science begins with a look at the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, ITER.

Over the course of this season, we'll be taking a look at some of the biggest projects in science, and the unique challenges and struggles they face, with a series we're calling "The Next Big Thing."

This week, we're looking at ITER, the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, currently under construction in France.

According to Dr. Stewart Prager, the Director of the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, the US government's leading fusion research facility, ITER is meant to prove the practicality of generating electricity using nuclear fusion, which has the potential to produce clean, safe, and plentiful energy.

ITER is the largest and most expensive experiment in history, but early in the project, it is a decade behind schedule and many billions of dollars over budget. Quirks producer Jim Lebans explains why. Nature editorial on ITER



FEATURE STORY IN THE NEW YORKER
BY RAFFI KHATCHADOURIAN . A Reporter at Large MARCH 3, 2014 ISSUE

INTRODUCING THE I.T.E.R - A Star in a Bottle
[An audacious plan to create a new energy source could save the planet from catastrophe. But time is running out]


Commercial reactors modelled on ITER could generate power with no carbon, virtually no pollution, and scant radioactive waste. CREDIT ILLUSTRATION BY JACOB ESCOBEDO

Years from now—maybe in a decade, maybe sooner—if all goes according to plan, the most complex machine ever built will be switched on in an Alpine forest in the South of France.

The machine, called the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, or ITER, will stand a hundred feet tall, and it will weigh twenty-three thousand tons—more than twice the weight of the Eiffel Tower.

At its core, densely packed high-precision equipment will encase a cavernous vacuum chamber, in which a super-hot cloud of heavy hydrogen will rotate faster than the speed of sound, twisting like a strand of DNA as it circulates.

The cloud will be scorched by electric current (a surge so forceful that it will make lightning seem like a tiny arc of static electricity), and bombarded by concentrated waves of radiation. Beams of uncharged particles—the energy in them so great it could vaporize a car in seconds—will pour into the chamber, adding tremendous heat.

In this way, the circulating hydrogen will become ionized, and achieve temperatures exceeding two hundred million degrees Celsius—more than ten times as hot as the sun at its blazing core.

No natural phenomenon on Earth will be hotter.

Like the sun, the cloud will go nuclear. The zooming hydrogen atoms, in a state of extreme kinetic excitement, will slam into one another, fusing to form a new element—helium—and with each atomic coupling explosive energy will be released: intense heat, gamma rays, X rays, a torrential flux of fast-moving neutrons propelled in every direction.

There isn’t a physical substance that could contain such a thing. Metals, plastics, ceramics, concrete, even pure diamond—all would be obliterated on contact, and so the machine will hold the superheated cloud in a “magnetic bottle,” using the largest system of superconducting magnets in the world.

Just feet from the reactor’s core, the magnets will be cooled to two hundred and sixty-nine degrees below zero, nearly the temperature of deep space. Caught in the grip of their titanic forces, the artificial earthbound sun will be suspended, under tremendous pressure, in the pristine nothingness of ITER’s vacuum interior.

READ MORE...

For the machine’s creators, this process—sparking and controlling a self-sustaining synthetic star—will be the culmination of decades of preparation, billions of dollars’ worth of investment, and immeasurable ingenuity, misdirection, recalibration, infighting, heartache, and ridicule. \

Few engineering feats can compare, in scale, in technical complexity, in ambition or hubris. Even the ITER organization, a makeshift scientific United Nations, assembled eight years ago to construct the machine, is unprecedented.

Thirty-five countries, representing more than half the world’s population, are invested in the project, which is so complex to finance that it requires its own currency: the ITER Unit of Account.

No one knows ITER’s true cost, which may be incalculable, but estimates have been rising steadily, and a conservative figure rests at twenty billion dollars—a sum that makes ITER the most expensive scientific instrument on Earth.

But if it is truly possible to bottle up a star, and to do so economically, the technology could solve the world’s energy problems for the next thirty million years, and help save the planet from environmental catastrophe.


Why is hydrogen considered the primordial element in the universe? Because hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe. Also hydrogen was the first element which appeared after Big Bang.

Hydrogen, a primordial element, is the most abundant atom in the universe, a potential fuel that poses little risk of scarcity.

Eventually, physicists hope, commercial reactors modelled on ITER will be built, too—generating terawatts of power with no carbon, virtually no pollution, and scant radioactive waste.

The reactor would run on no more than seawater and lithium. It would never melt down. It would realize a yearning, as old as the story of Prometheus, to bring the light of the heavens to Earth, and bend it to humanity’s will. ITER, in Latin, means “the way.”

The main road to the ITER construction site from Aix-en-Provence, where I had booked a room, is the A51 highway. The drive is about half an hour, winding north past farmland and the sun-glittered Durance River.

Just about every form of energy is in evidence nearby, from hydroelectric dams to floating solar panels. Seams of lignite, a soft brownish coal, run beneath the soil in Provence, but the deposits have become too expensive to mine.

Several miles from Aix, a large coal plant, with a chimney that climbs hundreds of feet into the sky, is being converted to burn biomass—leaves, branches, and agricultural debris.


ITER AT NIGHT -The ITER Assembly Hall stands out on the construction platform on a clear and cold November evening. ©Christophe Roux - CEA/IRFM 27 NOVEMBER 2015

ITER is being built a mile or two from the wooded campus of the Commissariat à l’Énergie Atomique et aux Énergies Alternatives, a state-funded research organization, created in 1945 to advance nuclear power, and now also renewable energy. Evergreen oak and Aleppo pine cover the foothills; beneath them, the French government maintains its largest strategic oil reserve.

ITER’s headquarters, a five-floor edifice, was erected two years ago. An undulating wave of gray concrete slats shade its floor-to-ceiling windows. Its interior is simple: whitewashed walls, polished-concrete floors.

The building’s southern façade overlooks a work site, more than a hundred acres of construction on the opposite side of a berm. By the time the reactor is turned on—the formal target date for its first experiment is 2020—the site will be home to a small city. Nearly forty buildings will surround the machine, from cooling towers to a cryogenics plant, which will produce liquid helium to cool the superconducting magnets.

A skywalk extends from the second floor of the headquarters to the berm, where a capacious NASA-style control room will one day be built. For now, the bridge ends in a pile of ochre dirt, and the only way to the vast expanse of construction is via a circuitous drive.

When I arrived, on a late-summer morning, the air was dry and warm—filled with the aroma of pine, lavender, and wild thyme. Five hundred people work for ITER’s central organization, but an unusual sense of quiet and vacancy permeated the place; this was August in France, and many workers had taken time off.

The atmosphere seemed to be drawn from the imagination of J. G. Ballard: the modernist husk of a utopian project, half-finished, half-populated, isolated amid a primeval forest.

A few people with clipboards stood beneath the sun to map out an expansion to the headquarters. To save money, an entire wing had been abandoned during the construction, and employees worked out of temporary annexes—their staircases and walls hollow, like stage sets—built several hundred yards away, with shuttle buses moving among the buildings.

The busing has proved to be impractical, and so the wing will be constructed after all, though now at greater expense.


NEW YORKER SIDE CARTOON: Cartoon “There’s money in there that could be used for other purposes.”

In a bare lobby, I wandered over to a model of the reactor core: a cylinder, dense with mechanical parts, rendered in brightly colored bits of machined plastic.

ITER’s design is based on an idea that Andrei Sakharov and another Russian physicist, Igor Tamm, sketched out in the nineteen-fifties. It is called a tokamak—old Soviet shorthand for a more precise and geometrical name, toroidalnaya kamera s aksialnym magnitnym polem, or “toroidal chamber with an axial magnetic field.”

Sakharov’s rough sketch depicted a doughnut-shaped vacuum chamber, or torus, ringed with electromagnets, and that is how ITER’s core will look, too, once it is completed.

In myriad ways, the project is a fragment of the Cold War stranded in the present day.

Sakharov had predicted that a reactor based on his sketch would produce energy in only ten or fifteen years. Subsequent physicists who built and ran experimental tokamaks were equally optimistic, always predicting success in a decade or two or three.

Yet, while other scientific challenges have been overcome—launching Yuri Gagarin into orbit; delivering a rover to Mars; sequencing the human genome; discovering the Higgs boson in CERN’s Large Hadron Collider—controlled thermonuclear energy has remained elusive.

The National Academy of Engineering regards the construction of a commercial thermonuclear reactor—the kind of device that would follow ITER—as one of the top engineering challenges of the twenty-first century. Some in the field believe that a working machine would be a monument to human achievement surpassing the pyramids of Giza.

ITER was first proposed in 1985, during a tense summit in Geneva between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, who agreed to collaborate “in obtaining this source of energy, which is essentially inexhaustible, for the benefit for all mankind.”

Since then, the coöperation has expanded to include the European Union, China, Japan, South Korea, and India. In the ITER lexicon, each partner is a Domestic Agency. Unlike any previous scientific collaboration, no partner has full control, and there is no over-all central budget.

Each country makes its primary contribution in the form of finished components, which the ITER organization will assemble in France. The arrangement could serve as a model for future collaborations—or as one to avoid. At the headquarters, there is a circular dais, where representatives from the Domestic Agencies come and sit, with flags and placards before them, like members of the U.N. Security Council.

But there are limits to diplomacy in nuclear engineering.

Big machines either work as they’re supposed to or they don’t. Compromise and politesse can be disastrous. Thousands of components—many of them huge machines in their own right—must be slotted beside one another, more or less perfectly, and there will be scant ability to correct imperfections after they are delivered.

Ultimately, the project’s success may rest on a simple question: Will everything fit together?

Stefano Chiocchio, ITER’s head of design integration—its chief puzzle master—works in one of the temporary annexes near the headquarters.

His BlackBerry typically contains an impossible schedule of overlapping appointments, forcing him to conduct meeting triage as he rushes around like a zigzagging atomic particle.

Rather than take the shuttle among the buildings, he drives his car to save minutes. When he speaks, he often gets halfway through a sentence, stops, and says, “O.K.”—ending his thought right there. Sometimes a friend will stop him mid-stride, and say, “Stefano,” and smooth out his rumpled collar.

Chiocchio’s engineers are, in a sense, the project’s Praetorian Guard, as one ITER official told me. So far, the vast machine exists only as 1.8 terabytes of digital information, accessible on a secure computing cloud, and backed up every night to a bank of hard drives in Barcelona.

The hard drives are secured, but the main threat to the files is the work itself—with alterations to the design coming simultaneously from the ITER headquarters, from the Domestic Agencies, and from subcontractors around the world. Ideally, the changes are added only with the Praetorian Guard’s approval. Still, incompatibilities proliferate, with many lying in wait like insurgents. Chiocchio’s team must hunt down entire taxonomies of conflicts—“nonconformities” and “clashes” and “deviations.” On most days, it seems that there aren’t enough hours to do it.

I was supposed to meet Chiocchio on the fifth floor of the main building, but when I arrived there was no receptionist, no security to speak of, no one I could find to ask where he was. I heard my footsteps echo down the long, sunlit corridors as I looked for him. In one conference room, I interrupted a meeting, and a few seconds later a short, smiling man in his fifties came rushing out. It was Chiocchio. His hair, virtually gone on top, graying and wavy on the sides, framed a tired face with rounded features. Greeting me warmly, he ushered me back into the room, and urged me to sit.

Two dozen engineers were seated around tables arranged in a horseshoe, and the mood was sombre. A sense of crisis has come to surround ITER like the concentric nebulae of a dying sun.

The project has been falling behind schedule almost since it began—in 1993, it was thought that the machine could be ready by 2010—and there will certainly be further delays. Morale is through the floor, and one can expect cynicism, disagreements, black humor. “There is anxiety here that it is all going to implode,” one physicist told me.

Many engineers and physicists at ITER believe that the delays are self-inflicted, having little to do with engineering or physics and everything to do with the way that ITER is organized and managed.

Key members of the technical staff have left; others have taken “stress leave” to recuperate. Not long ago, the director-general, Osamu Motojima, a Japanese physicist, who has run the organization since 2010, ordered workmen to install at the headquarters’ entrance a granite slab proclaiming ITER’s presence. People call it a tombstone.

Chiocchio’s engineers had assembled to discuss their most urgent problem: delays in constructing the enormous building that will house the tokamak. The holdup had its own history.

ITER had ended up in Provence following years of geopolitical argument over its location. The fight narrowed until just two countries remained, France and Japan, and finally a compromise was struck: the site would be in France, but ITER’s director-general would be Japanese.

There are many reasons that building a project like ITER in France makes good sense; France is singularly reliant on nuclear power, and Europe has built some of the world’s most well-regarded tokamaks. But the region is prone to earthquakes, and to winds so strong that they can cause a large building to sway several inches.

So the machine, along with two structures housing critical equipment, will be built on a special foundation—a concrete slab, called the B2 slab—that will be supported by hundreds of anti-seismic plinths, in what ITER engineers call the Tokamak Seismic Isolation Pit. The slab must support three hundred and sixty thousand tons of equipment and infrastructure.


NEW YORKER SIDE Cartoon

Early on, to maintain the schedule, construction was rushed forward, even though significant portions of the tokamak design were incomplete. It was like building the shell of a rocket before its engine is designed—or worse, because, as Chiocchio said, “one of the difficulties with this nuclear building is that after it is built, in many cases, you cannot drill a hole in it.

Once a wall is finished, that’s it. The building has a safety function, a confinement function, and one of the main requirements is that it has no cracks through which radioactivity can migrate and escape. We have to be sure that we have not missed anything—every pipe, every cable—because if we do miss something, and someone says, ‘O.K., let’s just bolt this to the wall’—well, no, we cannot do that.”

And yet ITER’s tremendous scale and machine density make it virtually impossible to know where everything will go.

Six thousand miles of cable will run through the machine, delivering electrical power to two hundred and fifty thousand terminal points. One heating system will send a million watts of microwave radiation through a window made of a large synthetic diamond. The system will require perfectly straight tubular guides to transport the waves; no other component can impede them.


Eavesdropping on the Sounds of a Rainforest

To solve the riddle of building-before-machine, the engineers have been designing special portals throughout the structure. “Basically, what we have to do now is make sure we have predefined places, with steel plates embedded in the walls, where we can support all the systems that we have inside,” Chiocchio explained. “We have to put in a lot of these embedment plates, more than eighty thousand, but each one costs a lot of money, and the European Domestic Agency, which is responsible for the building, is complaining that we are putting in too many.”

Complaints become arguments, arguments become delays, and delays with the building now threaten the whole project. “If the building is not finished, we will have components sitting along the road. A day of delay now starts costing, I don’t know, probably close to a million euros.”

In the conference room, the engineers studied a PowerPoint presentation titled “TKM Complex—B1 level status week 34 and actions week 35.”

A member of the design-integration team, Jean-Jacques Cordier, was leading the discussion. As the meeting ended, he noted that there was not enough time to vet the components that occupy the third floor: plans had to be gathered, specifications brought up to date, problems reconciled. “It is not reasonable,” he said. “It means that we would need to process thousands of data points in three weeks.”

Chiocchio asked if things would speed up after early floors were finished, but there were simply too many details to work through before delivering drawings to the contractor. “We have no more float,” Cordier said. “If we delay now, we will have a real delay. The only way to avoid a schedule loss is to increase our resources to cope with it.”

That afternoon, Chiocchio joined me for lunch. He seemed exhausted.

ITER, by the time it is finished, will contain ten million individual parts, but he had only twenty-eight people working for him. He later showed me a room near his office where three men sit at workstations every day to hunt down conflicts. Before each man, there was the huge ITER puzzle in miniature, filling up two computer screens.

Up close, the design looked as though someone had taken the industrial landscape that runs alongside the New Jersey Turnpike and compressed it into a cube the volume of a Holiday Inn. “We have to check everything, from clashes to interfaces—like here,” one of the men said, pointing to a schematic where a support structure for the tokamak was not lining up with an embedment plate.

To fix it, he would have to inform a team of designers two floors below. Usually, members of the Guard relay messages that others do not want to hear, he said, adding, “In fact, we are not well loved by everybody.”

As Chiocchio saw it, many design conflicts arise because of the project’s political underpinnings.

Changes to one component often make others (built in other countries) more expensive, and the ensuing arguments are difficult to resolve. From the outset, each Domestic Agency vied to build the machine’s state-of-the-art components, so that its industries could gain the know-how; as a result, the design and the manufacture of the most sophisticated parts have been split apart in ways that are politically expedient but are at odds with engineering prudence.

A single manufacturer should build ITER’s vacuum chamber, a high-precision device that must operate with perfect symmetry. Instead, it will be constructed in nine segments, two in Korea and the rest in Europe. The design calls for certain features to be welded, but the Europeans decided to use bolts, which are cheaper. The Praetorian Guard, with little more than the power of persuasion, must insure that the device is whole.

Common frames of reference are often hard to find, and Chiocchio was constantly working to prevent ITER from becoming a scientific Tower of Babel.

He pushes scientists to use the same terminology (even, occasionally, the same language), and to use the same metric standard of measurement. It is the job of a scold, but he has been with ITER for two decades, and, like many people who build tokamaks, he came to the project with a sense of mission.

Thermonuclear energy—or nuclear fusion, as it is also called—differs from fission, the type of atomic reactions harnessed by existing reactors, and its promise is vastly greater. An engineer who has devoted his career to the goal of a working reactor once told me, “Fusion has an interesting pathology to it—the allure of it is so immense.”

In the ITER headquarters, one can sense this: a psychological force that attenuates, or confines, pessimism like a magnetic field. I picked up on it one afternoon when a dispirited physicist brightened as he made the case, half joking, that the spaceship in “Star Trek” was powered by fusion.

Chiocchio has been touched by it, too. He had started his career in fission, his interest emerging out of dire predictions about peak oil. “There was this story of limited growth, how the planet would be affected by its lack of resources, and I thought nuclear energy would help solve this,” he told me.

“But, after a few years, I was, let’s say, impacted by Chernobyl, which stopped nuclear activities worldwide. In Italy, the project that I was working on came slowly to an end—O.K., it wasn’t stopped, but it was clear that there was no more political support for building new nuclear plants.”

He eventually found contract work with a European tokamak called the Joint European Torus, or JET, and later made his way to ITER.

“Fusion looked like it would have a chance—a clean alternative to fission,” he said. “But there is a difference: fission is a reality. Fusion is on its way toward reality.”


ITER, five years old -David Kingham, CEO of UK-based Tokamak Energy Ltd., who reviewed the MIT design but is not connected with the research, praises the work: "Fusion energy is certain to be the most important source of electricity on earth in the 22nd century, but we need it much sooner than that to avoid catastrophic global warming. This paper...should be catching the attention of policy makers, philanthropists and private investors.” ITER fifth anniversary iter/Promo image

II—THE STAR BUILDERS

The basic physics of thermonuclear energy is seductively simple. Fission produces energy by atomic fracture, fusion by tiny acts of atomic union.

Every atom contains at least one proton, and all protons are positively charged, which means that they repel one another, like identical ends of a magnet. As protons are forced closer together, their electromagnetic opposition grows stronger.

If electromagnetism were the only force in nature, the universe might exist only as single-proton hydrogen atoms keeping solitary company.

But as protons get very near—no farther than 0.000000000000001 metres—another fundamental force, called the strong force, takes over. It is about a hundred times more powerful than electromagnetism, and it binds together everything inside the atomic nucleus.


NEW YORKER SIDE Cartoon “Remember how we used to put nice little smiles on their faces?”

READ COMPLETE VOLUME STORY HERE:http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/03/03/a-star-in-a-bottle


Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi
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