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The Energy of the Future: The Status of Nuclear Fusion Research and the Role of the IAEA

Participants at the side event on latest advances in research and development in fusion technology. (Photo: J. C. Castillo/IAEA)

Scientists are becoming increasingly excited about the prospects that within the foreseeable future a reactor can replicate the sun’s energy source on Earth through scientific and technological innovation of a scale previously unimagined. During the annual IAEA General Conference, a side event on nuclear fusion technology was held to discuss latest advances in research and development in fusion technology.

“The world is getting warmer with emissions getting from bad to worse, it is hopeful that alternative sources of energy such as fusion technology can provide electricity worldwide by the middle of this century,” said Steve Cowley, Director of the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy in the United Kingdom, in his introductory remarks.

He also highlighted the pioneering work of the IAEA in promoting international collaboration in this field since 1958 and without this support, the development of fusion technology would be further behind. “We now need to urgently ramp up the work going on at the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) and to push the experiment forward to meet the growing energy demands.”

Discussions provided insights into the status of fusion research presently and possibilities for its upscaling to commercial energy production. Global collaboration was the best way forward to close the technological and scientific gaps to realize the dream of a functioning fusion power plant within the foreseeable future, panelists agreed.

“It is too expensive and technologically challenging to attempt charting a lonely research path,” Richard Kamendje, a fusion physicist at the IAEA, told the audience. “Therefore the role played by the IAEA in fostering international collaboration and facilitating the exchange of scientific and technical information in the fusion field is key for its success.”

Global Experiment aims to harnessing fusion energy

The challenge to create a source of energy similar to that of the sun itself in a reactor is yet to be conquered. With dedicated research and unprecedented international collaboration, scientists believe that there is light at the end of the tunnel to re-create this energy in a reactor that can deliver energy to the electricity grid.

This innovative experiment is to be carried out at a global nuclear fusion experiment facility presently under construction. Known as ITER and located in Cadarache, in the south of France; it is an international project with seven members: China, India, Japan, South Korea, the European Union, the Russian Federation and the United States.

“There are so many international partners who are working on the components and manufacturing areas of the ITER project,” said Cowley. “Though we may compete in the advances made at the national level in fusion science and technology, we gain from the constructive outcomes. The competition to find the solutions to a problem benefits the goals of ITER. Fusion prototype reactors are being built at the national level, but what is also motivating scientists like us, is the global eagerness to see an end result that is positive for humanity.”

The ITER experiment boldly represents the magic of international collaboration for the peaceful uses of the atom. ITER, should the experiment succeed, would show the path to building a power plant that uses controlled nuclear fusion, as a potentially inexhaustible energy source. More significantly, it will demonstrate how the greatest of challenges in modern science and technology can be successfully overcome through international cooperation.

Giving an overview of the current status of the project and the challenges, David Campbell, Director of the Science and Operations Department at ITER pointed out that this project is the largest international scientific collaboration on earth to create sustainable energy. “From the delivery of large plant components for the experimental reactor to building additional support structures, are among some of the challenges we are facing. Without international collaboration and support, this project would just not be possible.”

Proponents of fusion technology are also aiming for commercial utilization, and this on-going experiment needs to speed up, move ahead as rapidly as possible to make ITER operational at the earliest, he reiterated.

The theory is relatively straight forward. The nuclear fusion reactor should achieve self-sustaining fusion reactions and produce in excess of several hundreds of MW of fusion power. But turning science to practical application is complex and challenging. While the ITER facility will test key technologies necessary for a fusion reactor, many countries are independently initiating new research and development activities leading to a demonstration of fusion energy’s readiness for commercialization (DEMO). But it would all come together, in the spirit of international collaboration under a world “DEMO Programme.”  The IAEA organizes a series of DEMO programme workshops to facilitate and strengthen international cooperation to define and coordinate DEMO programme activities.

Scientists and policy makers are convinced that we are on the edge of an ‘Age of Fusion’ and the ITER facility and demonstration plants would establish the technology to significantly meet, in the not too distant future, humanity’s energy needs through a virtually inexhaustible, safe, environmentally-friendly and universally-available resource.

The IAEA has been in the forefront of nuclear fusion research efforts since the 1950s. The IAEA has focused its efforts on facilitating the coordination of international fusion undertakings and enhancing the interaction among developing Member States with leading fusion initiatives. The Agency can rightfully claim its share of credit in supporting the pioneering ways to make fusion energy a reality for meeting the global energy demand. 

We now need to urgently ramp up the work going on at the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) and to push the experiment forward to meet the growing energy demands.
Steve Cowley, Director, Culham Centre for Fusion Energy, the United Kingdom
Last update: 4 September 2017