A Fusion Facilitator

IAEA Deputy Director General Yury Sokolov discusses fusion today and tomorrow.

How does the IAEA currently support fusion research?

The IAEA’s financial and human resource investment in fusion research is vanishingly small in comparison with the sums and staffing that countries involved in fusion around the world dedicate to that effort. Nonetheless, nuclear fusion has been an important focus of the IAEA’s activities from the inception of international fusion activities, which began 52 years ago at the so-called “Second Geneva Conference”, a UN conference on the peaceful use of atomic energy. In addition, since October, 1960, the IAEA has been publishing the journal Nuclear Fusion, which is now published online to deliver information to the fusion community as swiftly as possible.

Our contribution also includes hosting a unique consultative body, comprising outstanding fusion scientists from different countries, the International Fusion Research Council, which advises the IAEA Director General on all questions related to fusion and plasma physics research. This Council is the forum where national and international activities are coordinated, such as organizing the 23rd IAEA Fusion Energy Conference, being held from 11 – 15 October in Daejeon, the Republic of Korea.

It has always been obvious that the IAEA could not command the funds needed to promote the use of nuclear power by building demonstration or power reactors. The Agency’s role is to encourage the exchange of scientific and technical information on research in nuclear technology, provide advice, promote training, evaluate nuclear projects and carry out feasibility studies.

Even without direct involvement in projects, the IAEA can play a very important role. ITER, the international organization building an experimental fusion reactor, is a good example of how the Agency plays a key role as a mediator on many crucial occasions during ITER’s evolution from an idea to an international agreement and through its maturity and autonomy as an independent organization. The IAEA assisted in consolidating the international fusion community, focusing its plasma physics research on the problems of the ITER design, making this research more results-oriented and very effectively encouraging worldwide investment in fusion. ITER is a hugely visible example of how large international projects can be organized and how the IAEA can position itself in such projects.

In addition, the IAEA offers a forum for medium and small-scale projects within the framework of its “Coordinated Research Projects”. And quite often, it is the smallest projects that can influence fusion research significantly.

Looking ahead, the IAEA can help the international fusion community take the next steps, in the same manner as it facilitated ITER’s development. We will, for instance, gather the best human resources for future work, coordinate fusion and fission studies of technological issues relevant to both programmes, assist and collaborate in the education and training of future generations of young scientists and engineers, produce joint publications and organize scientific conferences.

An enormous investment is necessary to achieve fusion even on a test basis. Given all of the problems the world faces, is fusion worth the investment?

An investment in fusion is not wasted money. I think that the industrial spin-offs from fusion technology such as using plasma to harden material surfaces, for welding and cutting materials, to advance vacuum technologies, to develop materials capable of withstanding high energy fluxes, and to develop industrial technology for superconductor production, to name a few, have all yielded a return on all investments. It is possible to indicate an enormous number of examples when cutting edge scientific research boosts innovative applications.

ITER is the fusion community’s main path forward at the moment. The experimental reactor will be capable of producing a self-sustaining fusion reaction and demonstrating the integrated operation of the technologies essential for a fusion power plant, including handling the plasma energy flow in the divertor, testing the tritium breeding modules and steady state plasma control. Its operation is an important stage in nuclear fusion research. ITER will drive the next stage in the peaceful use of nuclear fusion energy: a demonstration power plant based on magnetic confinement. As a part of a broad strategy to achieve the goal of producing electricity using fusion energy, it was agreed to initiate activities for the development of an economical demonstration of fusion through development of a “DEMOnstration Power Plant” or DEMO reactor.

It is clear that additional approaches need also to be explored to find the optimal solution to the problem of bringing the Sun’s power to Earth. Alternative magnetic concepts and inertial fusion concepts are under investigation such as National Ignition Facility (NIF), the Laser Megajoule Project (LMJ), the FIREX (I and II) and Hiper project.

Fusion promises to offer a source of limitless, clean energy. What are the major challenges to be overcome in achieving commercially viable energy production using fusion?

There is no debate that fusion has the potential to produce a significant amount of energy for thousands of years. The challenge is how to make the process practical, economical, reliable and sustainable. All current fusion research is aiming to achieve that goal. And by achieving it, we will not only have energy, we will gain new structural materials, superconductors, reliable robots, new methods and tools for control and analysis, and so on.

And as a joke, let me say that we have to overcome the challenges created by impatient expectations and untimely disappointment.

When do you expect to see the first test reactor (ITER) in operation?.

The ITER schedule assumes that its first plasma will be produced in 2019.

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