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International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor

ITER is a combined venture coming from different countries who seek to exhibit the viability of utilizing fusion power to supply a growing demand for energy. Participating countries include: the European Union, United States, Russian Federation, Japan, China, Korea and India. The joint effort was officially granted funding by these participating countries on the 21st of November, 2006, the cost of which is estimated to reach approximately US$ 12B or 10n-euro or more for a span of thirty years of setting up.

Undoubtedly, ITER is the costliest scientific and technological project in modern history, superseding the project that launched the International Space Station. The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor project is determined to set the transition from current research concerning plasma physics to developing the technology of being able to generate electricity. ITER shall be set up in Southern France in Cadarache, a research center originally built to study nuclear energy in 1959.

Japan had attempted to take the position as a host country; the stiff competition between the two participating countries caused the program to be stalled for a year and six months. Technically, ITER attempts to artificially imitate the energy that powers the Sun and stars through an experimental reactor. This would be similar to having a star within the earth. The project is embarking on a study based on a combination of past related research works. If the program succeeds in demonstrating the feasibility of the technology, then participating countries will proceed to create a model reactor for commercial purpose, called the DEMO.

The ultimate objective of the project would be to set up fusion-powered reactors throughout the world. Contributors of this venture believe that ITER is the answer or solution to global warming (with the absence of harmful greenhouse gas emissions) while at the same time satisfying the burgeoning need for power consumption. Fusion power is seen by its proponents as a better alternative to production of energy, being cleaner in contrast to fossil-based fuels or safer than nuclear fission. II. Historical Background

The project started upon the initiative movement of core member countries namely the US, the European Union, former Soviet Union (currently replaced by the Russian Federation) and Japan way back in 1985. Specifically, ITER was birthed during the 1985 Geneva Summit between the United States and the Soviet Union. Foremost of their agenda, headed by USSR’s General Secretary Gorbachev and US president Ronald Reagan, is arms control. Aside from this former crucial issue, was the agreement to have a combined effort in the future to build a research complex wholly dedicated to generate fusion energy-powered reactor.

This agreement became the basis of the formation of the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor or more commonly referred to its acronym, ITER. Since then, it has embarked on various stages of conceptualization and design on the different aspects of ITER. The phase of Conceptual Design Activities took three years. This was followed by the next phase, the Engineering Design Activities (EDA) which took an additional six years to complete. Finally, the design was completed in 2001.

ITER will focus on tackling unresolved issues on the science of fusion energy such as getting a better understanding of the nature of burning plasma which feeds the energy, as well as the knowledge for its control and predictability. Once a comprehensive understanding of its behavior is reached, ITER will also handle the technology needed to set up ITER. The ambitious venture hopes to produce 500 MW of fusion power with burn pulse that could reach as far as eight minutes or more.

An agreement was reached among the participating parties to contribute funding assistance worth US$ 650 million for the project to demonstrate its feasibility, and additional funds were expected to be shelled out for its completion. As the project developed, the US had expressed its sentiment concerning the extreme high cost of funding the research, considering the lack of full assurance of its viability. With this in mind, the United States decided to withdraw its participation on 1999. Canada replaced the vacuum created by US’ absence.

A reversal of position took place in 2003 when US restored its ITER membership and support, with Canada backing out of that same year. The original ITER parties were later joined by other countries such as the People’s Republic of China, Korea, and in 2005 India came in. Each said countries were expected to contribute and give assistance in the project’s future construction and other related operations. The program underwent a crisis when the body of participants had to decide on the location with which to develop and build ITER facilities. Stiff competition arose especially between France and Japan.

The latter’s initial reaction was to withdraw, when France was awarded to host the expensive project. A consensus was reached when Japan was given a 20% deal of the project’s 200 research posts, despite the fact that Japan will only contribute 10% of the budget needed. In addition, Japan was also granted to host research facilities related to the project, with the European Union pledging to finance half of the cost of construction (“France Gets Nuclear Fusion Plant”). In 2006, it was formally agreed that the project will proceed to the next phase of building the fusion-powered reactor.

The ITER research complex is projected to start next year in 2008. Constructing the tokamak is planned to start by year 2011. ITER is targeting to achieve completion of its purpose by the year 2050. III. Functioning Technique of ITER The basic underlying process of nuclear fusion comes from the same process which causes the burning of the sun and stars. In contrast to nuclear fission, the fusion process involves the coming together or combining of the lightest nuclei, namely hydrogen, deuterium, and tritium which results to form Helium (a much heavier element) and high-energy neutrons.

In order to achieve the combining process, the light nuclei must be subjected to extremely high temperatures, as high as that found inside the sun. Studies aim to be able to learn how to control and prolong the fusion. Isotopes of Hydrogen must first go through extremely high temperatures in order to create plasma of deuterium and tritium ions. These ions are deposited in a tokamak, a reactor shaped like a doughnut. Confinement of D (deuterium) and T (tritium) ions, made possible by powerful conducting magnets, consequently causes these ion’s collision and fusion with helium nuclei and neutrons as its byproducts.

The energy released by these energetic neutrons coming from the tokamak can be changed into heat. The heat likewise can be utilized to produce electricity. The helium nuclei which remains trapped inside the tokamak, in turn will be used to continue the fusion process (R. Ramachandran. “A Nuclear Leap”). Nuclear Fusion’s Advantage Over Nuclear Fission: Although there are other isotopes lighter than iron will produce the same fusion reaction which also gives off energy, the isotopes of deuterium and tritium require the least energy to form the reaction.

Moreover, the fusion process produces about three times more energy than the more familiar uranium fission, or a million times bigger than chemical reaction of burning fossil-based fuels. In terms of safety, nuclear fusion, unlike nuclear fission, has less harmful radiation. In the recent past, much protest had been expressed because the fear against nuclear energy emissions of nuclear fission-powered reactors and the various environmental problems it has caused.

One of which is the heat pollution of rivers and lakes which occurs as the water used to cool the reactor is released, though this circulates in separate pipes and are not radioactive. Additional hazards from nuclear fission are the harmful radiation which escapes from the reactor. The greatest problem of this type of reactor are the solid wastes accumulated from the nuclear reactions which continues to give off harmful radiation even for hundreds or thousands of years, depending on the materials employed. Safely containing and storing this waste is both difficult and costly.

Such disadvantages from nuclear fission-powered reactors cause the utilization of nuclear fusion far more appealing. However, despite the clear advantage of nuclear fusion, the major obstacle that scientists face relates to the high temperature needed to produce the reaction. Although they possess the knowledge of how to produce these temperatures, they still cannot control the reaction, that is, slow it down in order to harness the energy safely. Furthermore, technology wise, thermonuclear fusion has yet to produce a significant amount of energy.

Theoretically, this process has been studied since 1951 therefore it is well understood. Plasma fusion, the other term used for thermonuclear fusion, has made little progress in fulfilling the various promises projected since 1951 (“Advantages of Fusion”). IV. Energy Demand: The Need to Develop Alternatives The growth of industrial and technological societies depended on the development of technology to make widespread use of two major energy resources namely, coal and petroleum. Even today, most of the energy used in the US is provided by fossil fuels, mostly petroleum.

This is not only true in the US but in less developed countries as well. Everywhere, petroleum is in great demand for industries and as transportation fuels. In fact, the whole world has become heavily dependent on this non-renewable resource. A non-renewable energy resource is one which cannot be replaced in a human lifetime. By contrast, wood is a renewable energy resource, since some kinds of trees can be grown to be harvested for fuel in only 20 years. In the case of fossil fuels however, once the world’s present supplies are gone, it will take millions of years to replace them.

The burning of fossil fuels often releases undesirable byproducts, products other than the desired ones. A simple illustration is soot, which consists of clusters of carbon atoms. Soot dirties the air and everything touched by the air, including human lungs. Such undesirable side-effects: air pollution caused by colourless gases or thick, black smoke, common byproducts of burning fossil fuels. Another is acid rain, formed when gases such as sulphur dioxide combine with water in the air. Acid rain causes much harm on plants, pollutes lakes, and damages buildings.

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