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The Almighty Buck Science Politics

ITER Fusion Project Struggles To Put the Pieces Together 138

Posted by timothy
from the failure-to-fuse dept.
ananyo writes "The world's largest scientific project is threatened with further delays, as agencies struggle to complete the design and sign contracts worth hundred of millions of euros with industrial partners. Sources familiar with the project warn that the complex system for buying ITER's many pieces could put the fusion reactor project even further behind schedule. Rather than providing cash, ITER's partners have pledged 'in kind' contributions of pieces of the machine. Magnets, instruments and reactor sections will arrive from around the world to be cobbled together at the central site in St-Paul-lès-Durance in southern France. Because no one body holds the purse strings, designs for the machine's components face a tortuous back-and-forth between the central ITER Organization and national 'domestic agencies', which ensure that local companies secure contracts for ITER's components. Managers say the project remains on schedule. But it would hardly be the first time that ITER had been delayed or faced budgetary difficulties."
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ITER Fusion Project Struggles To Put the Pieces Together

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday October 30, 2012 @10:51AM (#41818713)

    The ITER project has an overly complex management for purely political reasons, and that causes complexities, delays and increased costs. However the managers think everything is fine.

    • For sixty years fusion scientists have been saying "We've almost got it." They're promising that if we keep throwing them billions, they might have something feasible in another fifty.

      The highest power levels obtained even after half a decade's research was 65% of the input power and lasted for half a second. The power levels needed to keep the reaction self-sustaining are an order of magnitude higher, and to generate useful power is yet another order of magnitude *or two* higher than that.

      There are no know

      • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday October 30, 2012 @12:01PM (#41819577)

        There are no known materials that can withstand the radiation and temperatures anywhere nearly long enough; even a second's operation permanently damages and contaminates huge parts of the reactor vessel.

        No, a second of exposure is easily handled and we have materials that we are pretty sure will get into the hours regime. The work that needs to be done is to bridge the gap between something that runs for a day to something that runs for a year.

        The highest power levels obtained even after half a decade's research was 65% of the input power and lasted for half a second

        That has been improved to about pretty close to equivalent 100-120% for 10s based on D-D reactions in a machine that didn't want to use tritium. Getting this up to a Q a few times that is should not be an issue. Getting the efficiency up to commercial viable levels may be much more difficult though.

      • by w_dragon (1802458) on Tuesday October 30, 2012 @12:01PM (#41819579)
        We built the LHC, a massive expense, for no reason other than basic science. There is, to my knowledge, no goal for the LHC that will directly justify its cost, but we built it anyway because basic science is important. This is no different. Maybe it won't work, that's fine. But we'll learn something in trying, we'll have a better understanding of what it required, maybe we'll figure out some new materials to get us closer to a working reactor, maybe we'll just end up with a lot more data to examine. If we don't keep trying what do you think will drive the other technologies required for fusion? Saying we shouldn't do it because we could put the money elsewhere is just as dumb as saying we shouldn't explore Mars because people are starving in Africa.
        • by ShanghaiBill (739463) on Tuesday October 30, 2012 @12:20PM (#41819821)

          We built the LHC, a massive expense, for no reason other than basic science. ... This is no different.

          Actually, it is very different. LHC is about basic science. ITER is not. It is about engineering, not science. We understand the science of fusion just fine. We just haven't figured out how to build a contraption to make it happen in a controlled way.

          • We just haven't figured out how to build a contraption to make it happen in a controlled way.

            Well... We can make it happen [wikipedia.org] in a controlled way, we just can't keep it controlled for very long. Sure, it has limited practical uses and the reset costs are a bit high to be productive, but, you know, baby steps.

      • by serviscope_minor (664417) on Tuesday October 30, 2012 @12:03PM (#41819597) Journal

        For sixty years fusion scientists have been saying

        For 15 years slashdotters have been failing to read the summary, let alone the article.

        "We've almost got it."

        No, they haven't.

        They're promising that if we keep throwing them billions, they might have something feasible in another fifty.

        They've been promising that they will get it if it is funded to an adequate level.

        It has only ever been funded at the level which will never be sufficient.

        You're blaming "scientists" when politics is at fault. That makes you are part of the problem.

        • by chispito (1870390)

          You're blaming "scientists" when politics is at fault. That makes you are part of the problem.

          Can I blame the scientists for trusting in bureaucrats?

          • by oursland (1898514)
            The scientists don't trust the bureaucrats, they ask for assistance. What's the alternative?
        • They've been promising that they will get it if it is funded to an adequate level.

          And this is where everyone knows they are full of it. In doing basic research, money /= breakthroughs, it can yes but is not a guarantee. If you just fund me enough I can do "X" where "X" is anything you can dream. " What? I haven't reached it yet? You haven't funded me enough!" It should be funded for other good reasons, but not the one you mentioned.

          • Except that the basic research has been done, fusion has been demonstrated. Yes, there are still some significant materials and confinement hurdles to achieve a commercially viable system, but it is primarily a engineering challenge, not a basic research one.

      • by maudface (1313935)

        Fusion isn't a waste of time, tokamak is a waste of time.

        Bussard reactors, look into them. They're way more promising, would cost a lot less, have been proven to scale well such that a prototype costing around ~$200m work hit break even.

        • What are you basing you opinion on? Do you actually work in the industry, or did you read a press release?

        • by slew (2918)

          You must be talking about those EMC2 [emc2fusion.org] folks...

          Unfortunatly, although the Navy continues to fund research into Polywell style fusion reactors, there are several big hurdles to overcome. The biggest ones (to me) are that the concept has unknown scaling constants (e.g, does a "big" version lose too much efficinecy), and they most expensive component (the magnets) are inside the reactor and get bombarded with radiation which creates and equally big material science headache as some of the alternate approaches.

          R

      • by MozeeToby (1163751) on Tuesday October 30, 2012 @12:25PM (#41819913)

        Actually, for 60 years fusion scientists have been saying "with current funding, it's probably impossible" which isn't the same thing as saying "almost got it". This [wikimedia.org] graph shows what leading scientists in 1970 thought they could deliver with different levels of funding. Do note the 'actual funding' line at the bottom, the one that is well below the 'fusion never' line that would never produce the equipment, expertise, and practical knowledge that would be required to build an economical fusion reactor. Quite frankly, given that this is what actual scientists in the field were saying 45 years ago, it's remarkable they've made as much progress as they have.

        • by rmstar (114746)

          Quite frankly, given that this is what actual scientists in the field were saying 45 years ago, it's remarkable they've made as much progress as they have.

          The problem is not just primarily the money to build a big machine. It is instead how to build the big machine that is a huge open question. It is clear that given enough money in the 70s they would most likely have burned it building the wrong machine. So it is probably better that they didn't get that humongous shipload of money, because it would have e

        • by Patch86 (1465427)

          What's sad about that chart is that their lowest wish- the "moderate" level" is only $2 billion or so. That's the same amount of money as it costs to build a single B-2 bomber. It's also the same amount of money (thanks Google) as the US has given to Egypt every year since the 70's to support Mubarak and his predecessors.

          Relatively speaking, and for a potentially multi-national effort, that's pocket change.

      • by Rogerborg (306625) on Tuesday October 30, 2012 @12:40PM (#41820079) Homepage

        I'd like to fund an entirely solar and wind powered community.

        By which I mean, build a town and surrounding farmland. Power it with nothing but solar and wind and whatever storage mechanism you can dream up, cost no object. Go hog wild.

        Then power all of that off of renewables, and see if it's possible.

        If it is, then calculate every Joule that they import, including the energy required to construct the place, and including the energy required to keep the people producing all those imports clothed, fed, housed and entertained.

        And make Greentown export that energy from their, uh, "spare" capacity. Every single Joule of it.

        Because I'm a civilised man, I'd suggest that we bail them out just before cannibalism sets in.

      • by elfprince13 (1521333) on Tuesday October 30, 2012 @12:44PM (#41820125) Homepage
        Distressingly, ITER is actually on schedule per dollar with its original plan. It's the amount of dollars falling behind per unit time, rather than the science and engineering per dollar.

        On the material science front, there's two issues - normal operation, and disruptions. With normal operation, there are materials that ought to be able to do a pretty good job of withstanding the environment inside the reactor, but the trick is finding ones that will do so without poisoning the plasma. Right now, there's some really cool work being done with liquid-lithium walled reactors to try and ameliorate those problems. As far as disruptions go, that's a confinement issue, there probably aren't materials that can deal with it. But almost all of the research being done with the computational plasma physicists I was working with this summer was going into understanding the magnetic reconnection events that lead to instability and disruptions. There are also reactor designs other than tokamaks which ought to be inherently more stable, but which have had tremendous difficulty getting funding due to the politicized nature of the work on ITER. NCSX, for example [wikipedia.org] would have had some very interesting results had it not been cancelled, but thankfully other stellarator experiments are under way (HSX, LHD, and the Wendelstein 7-X).
      • by jo_ham (604554)

        We spent more as a nation (the UK) on cellphone ringtones last year than we did on fusion power research, and we have JET in Oxford.

        Maybe if they were actually given serious funding you could complain about them asking for more.

        Just a couple of weeks shaved off Afghanistan and/or Iraq would fund the project for quite a while.

        I see you haven't been following along with the level of research - the JET could run net positive (just), but they have not done so because it would just be a dickwaving exercise and t

        • We spent more as a nation (the UK) on cellphone ringtones last year than we did on fusion power research, and we have JET in Oxford.

          So maybe the ITER scientists should sell ring tones for funding?

          • by bhiestand (157373)

            We spent more as a nation (the UK) on cellphone ringtones last year than we did on fusion power research, and we have JET in Oxford.

            So maybe the ITER scientists should sell ring tones for funding?

            Actually not a terrible idea. I imagine NASA could fund a couple more missions if it could charge licensing fees for its videos and photos. ITER needs more money, though, so they should just open some frozen yogurt shops instead. Cool space-y machines, girl behind the counter wearing a lab coat, tokamak-shaped desserts? I'd go.

      • I can think of no technology which has comparable levels of continued failure. It's time to put large scale fusion research to bed until other necessary technologies have caught up, and put the money saved into solar/wind/hydro generation and grid improvements.

        And how much difference do you think that would make? Solar/wind and the like already get vastly more public funding than fusion. Adding the fusion budget to it would barely be noticeable.

      • That's right, drop it. Because $20 billion per year in tax breaks to oil companies is money well spent, but using $20 billion dollars to learn how to build a real fusion reactor is a total waste. Why try to go after a technology that can bring virtually unlimited locally-sourced energy when we've got such bright prospects in oil trade?

      • by slew (2918)

        I can think of no technology which has comparable levels of continued failure.

        I can, it's call the NIF [wikipedia.org]...

      • by AaronLS (1804210)

        What are your sources for all of these claims?

        Most of what you've said is explained away here:
        http://hardware.slashdot.org/story/12/04/11/0435231/mit-fusion-researchers-answer-your-questions [slashdot.org]

        For sixty years fusion scientists have been saying "We've almost got it."

        Quotes used in this way usually indicate verbatim, not paraphrasing. Thus, I'd expect you to cite a specific source, else you look like quite silly making things up to validate your own flawed opinions.

        They're promising that if we keep throwing them billions, they might have something feasible in another fifty.

        They have previously never gotten the kind of funding they've asked for, primarily because of noisy people like yourse

      • by Pinhedd (1661735)

        There are no current, well researched materials known which can reliably withstand the forces caused by large scale fusion reactions. There are some that are either experimental or hypothesized. Physicists and material scientists are working hard to make these materials a reality and/or easier to mass produce. It may take another 50 years but we should get there eventually.

      • by Yvanhoe (564877)
        20 years ago they were saying "We are 40 years behind". Now they say that ITER will be achieved in 20 years. Most spectators find it too long and fail to see the difference between "40 years in the future" and "20 years in the future". They just see it as "Not here yet."
      • WTF is wrong with good ol' breeders? For fuck's sake, we need to stop burning our precious petroleum endowment.
    • The ITER project has an overly complex management for purely political reasons, and that causes complexities, delays and increased costs.

      Sure, but that's the nature of huge projects. They require huge amounts of money from numerous sources, and each source wants to make damn sure they get something in return for their investment. Could a more efficient management structure be imagined? Maybe. Could it ever actually be implemented? No.

      However the managers think everything is fine.

      They say everything is fine because if they don't the investors will lose confidence and the project will collapse. The actual lack of fine-ness causes many headaches for the scientists and engineers who h

  • TLDR (Score:5, Insightful)

    by vlm (69642) on Tuesday October 30, 2012 @10:52AM (#41818723)

    TLDR is its a "pot luck" fusion reactor and its a hell of a lot of coordination work to make sure they don't end up with 25 bags of doritos and nothing else, and theres always some cheap bastard who wants to eat at the buffet but doesn't bring anything, and half the attendants have conflicting food allergies and religious food prohibitions.

  • Wouldn't it be great if just one company controlled everything so that... no wait.

    • Wouldn't it be great if just one company controlled everything so that... no wait.

      Are you thinking of iTER? :-)

  • by Chemisor (97276) on Tuesday October 30, 2012 @11:10AM (#41818929)

    The euro crisis must be deep indeed if government projects have to rely on barter.

    • The euro crisis must be deep indeed if government projects have to rely on barter.

      It is impossible to distinguish sufficiently advanced satire from sufficiently refined ignorance. /Was/ that a joke?

      • It is impossible to distinguish sufficiently advanced satire from sufficiently refined ignorance.

        I *so* need this on a bumper sticker or t shirt, or both.

  • I doubt this project will ever do more than be a shining example of how not to do innovation. I'll bet that a small focused team, privately funded, will figure out a path to safe and large scale fusion before ITER does. Perhaps Bill Gates will lead the charge. His life's turn to altruism is good for the planet.
    • by biodata (1981610)
      This assumes that there is such a path. I'll bet no private funders are rich enough to take a bet on whether it is possible or not. Wasting billions once to find out it isn't technically possible currently is one thing. Wasting the billions twice is just, well, a waste.
    • by the gnat (153162) on Tuesday October 30, 2012 @11:25AM (#41819093)

      I'll bet that a small focused team, privately funded, will figure out a path to safe and large scale fusion before ITER does.

      There are certainly many problems with the way ITER is planned - the way they've distributed the manufacturing to keep all of the member countries happy is a recipe for inefficiency - but I think you underestimate how difficult projects like this actually are. Keep in mind that ITER is actually a scaled down version of what they originally wanted to build, and an actual commercial plant would be even more massive. One article I read mentioned that ITER required 150,000 km of superconducting wire; this isn't exactly commodity hardware. There's simply no way this wasn't going to cost many billions of euros, and require the full-time efforts of thousands of people.

      Perhaps Bill Gates will lead the charge.

      I would love to see private investors step up to the plate, but Bill Gates' net worth is about $66 billion, and ITER is currently projected to cost around 20 billion euros, so he'd have to drop a huge chunk of his fortune on what is still only a proof-of-concept machine (actually commercializing fusion power would require many billions more). Funding biomedical research as he's been doing is relatively cheap by comparison.

      The only way a small, privately financed team will figure out commercially viable fusion power is if any of the proposed "LENR"/"cold fusion" schemes turns out to be successful. Obviously it would be great if this were to happen, but I'm not holding my breath.

      • by invient (1905274)
        It be great if lenr could get federal funds to do the research needed... In a sense some federal funds do go to it but only because the scientists at spawar have done it on the side. We now have a method to easily replicate the original p and f experiment using co-deposition of palladium ( no longer have to wait for the palladium to absorb enough deutrium to trigger the reaction ). The Italians, specifically celani, have progressed work done with nickel and hydrogen. The most interesting experiment that I
    • by lordholm (649770)

      So, you want to find a private investor that forks out over 15 bn EUR in order to do an experiment... yeah right. For a commercial reactor when the technology is proven, this would be viable but ITER will not generate any profit, and as the technology will literally save the planet it is done through international collaboration.

    • by Jeng (926980)

      Even when fusion is up and running, it won't be some magical free source of power like fission power was sold to be. It will still involve really advanced technologies that need to be balanced just so. One might get more energy than what was put in, but operating costs are going to be rather extreme.

      It might be better for the environment and cheaper to operate than a uranium nuclear reactor, but the operating costs will not compare favorably against thorium reactors.

      • It might be better for the environment and cheaper to operate than a uranium nuclear reactor,

        This is very questionable. Fusion produces enormous amounts of neutrons (a factor of a hundred more than a typical fission reactor) that irradiate and weaken the reactor structure. You could work around that by surrounding the whole thing in liquid lithium to capture the neutrons and breed more fuel, but molten lithium is very nasty stuff, and the tritium bubbling out of it will be very hard to contain completely. Some people have proposed using He3 as a fuel, but that is utterly unrealistic (we don't ha

      • by AlecC (512609)

        I don't see why the operating costs have to be high. Fuel costs will be negligible, so you must be assuming that there are significant wear-and-tear costs, requiring replacement of damaged reactor parts etc. It appears that you are making direct extrapolation from current technology, and assuming that none of the problems they are trying to solve are actually solved. As well as the main ITER site in France, there is a materials research establishment in Japan working to solve the materials problems which wo

        • by Jeng (926980)

          It just doesn't add up.

          With magnetic containment you end up using too much electricity to contain the reaction for it to be worthwhile and it isn't sensible to contain the reaction with a solid material due to the pressures and energies involved.

          Until we can start using artificial gravity to compress and contain the fusion reaction it will not be economically feasible considering some of the alternatives such as thorium salt reactors.

          • by AlecC (512609)

            I don't follow your logic. You have to put some energy into a magnetic field to set it up, but you have to put some energy into bending metal etc to build a solid reactor. With superconducting coils and nothing going on inside, the magnetic field costs nothing to maintain.

            Of course, there is something going on inside, and it will cost energy to maintain the magnetic field. But I see no evidence that this should be of the same size as the energy produced. And I would have thought that the engineers working o

  • The world's largest scientific project

    In what sense is that? Number of people directly working on it? Number of countries collaborating?

    • by Type44Q (1233630)
      Cost?
      • I just found out it's big enough to require the invention of it's own pseudo-currency:

        ITER Construction will be managed within an agreed capped ceiling of 4,700 kIUA (ITER Unit of Account in thousands). This construction cap is based on the ITER Baseline adopted in July 2010 by the ITER Council and cannot be exceeded.

        From here [iter.org].

    • by AlecC (512609)

      And the assumption that it is a scientific project, when it is actually an engineering project.

      The output of a scientific project is a paper. With photographs, maybe, diagrams etc. But mainly, a paper that says "we have discovered something new about the universe".

      The output of an engineering project is something useful. Civil engineers build useful roads, aeronautical engineers build useful planes, and so on.

      The intention of ITER is to build a useful fusion reactor - eventually. There may be a lot of scien

      • by tsotha (720379)

        The intention of ITER is to build a useful fusion reactor - eventually.

        No, not really. They don't have any plans to convert excess energy into electrical power. At best, assuming they can get it to work, it will be useful as a test bed for materials.

    • by T Murphy (1054674)

      The world's largest scientific project

      In what sense is that?

      The size of the science, clearly.

  • So ITER is an international version of the Space Shuttle which was an intentionally lousy design that "succeeded" by maximizing the number of contractors in different congressional districts that got government $$$. The difference is that there was still enough residual talent left at NASA for the Space Shuttle to at least take flight. Not so much for ITER.

    If Bill Gates really wanted to help the world, he'd take $30 Billion and make it a prize for whoever can get an operation fusion reactor running. No a

    • If Bill Gates really wanted to help the world, he'd take $30 Billion and make it a prize for whoever can get an operation fusion reactor running

      But you need the money before you start. Nobody would invest billions entering such a competition on the off-chance they might get their money back.

  • by tp1024 (2409684) on Tuesday October 30, 2012 @12:12PM (#41819697)

    Why can't one country step forward and just do it?

    When it comes to the olympics, they're fighting over who gets to have the honour of spending a shitload of money for something nobody will really need at any time in the future. Here's something that would have an impact for everyone living on this planet for centuries to come and everybody claims it's way too expensive for a single country to do.

    THIS IS STUPID!

    • Why can't one country step forward and just do it?

      That doesn't solve the problem, it just moves it to a different level. You would still have states (or provinces) squabbling over it instead of countries. Just look at the SSC [wikipedia.org]. The states fought over it, and Texas won. We spent billions on it. Then the president from Texas lost the next election and the whole thing was cancelled.

      When it comes to the olympics, they're fighting over who gets to have the honour

      More than a billion people watch the Olympics. It brings prestige and votes. The ITER brings neither.

      THIS IS STUPID!

      Compared to what?

    • by moreati (119629)

      I love the quote and I agree with your point, but what numbers are you using? Wikipedia has the London £2012 budget at £9.3 billion, and the current ITER cost at â16 billion (£12.9 billion).

      • by tp1024 (2409684)

        I don't remember where I got that number from originally, but it did include the infrastructure.

        Building ITER also requires some infrastructure, gives people jobs and leaves behind a lot of material goods. Just one example: Only 15tons of the super conductors that will be used to get a 14.5T magnetic field in the reactor had been made until ITER. The reactor itself will require more than 300tons of the stuff, which means that it will be a lot cheaper to get afterwards and can be employed for better MRIs and

  • MIT - NANOR reactor...http://cdn.coldfusionnow.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/HagelsteinPdemonstra.pdf SPaWAR - co-deposition of palladium ... http://www.spawar.navy.mil/sti/publications/pubs/tr/1696/tr1696.pdf [navy.mil] Dr. Iraj Parchamazad, Chairman of the Chemistry Department at the University of LaVerne, in LaVerne, California - http://coldfusionnow.org/iraj-parchamazad-lenr-with-zeolites/ [coldfusionnow.org] Let's continue work on ITER, but not ignore the progress in the lenr/lanr field by opening up federal funding and the us pat
  • ITER fusion project struggles to put the pieces together.

  • by Necron69 (35644)

    So how do we get Elon Musk interested in fusion research?

    Necron69

    • by tp1024 (2409684)

      As soon as you manage to give him on the order of $5bn to do it.

      Hint: He's not that rich. AFAIK, he put less than $200mio into SpaceX (and did a great job, considering he's mostly using 1980ies technology).

    • by Patch86 (1465427)

      Space X came along and "commercialised" technology that the government had already paid to research and develop over many decades. They're doing (more cheaply) what the government perfected decades ago.

      Fusion is still at the "government pays to do the basic research" phase. No private company is going to ride in and fix this one for us.

  • These guys are in BC, Canada. I can't tell if it's inspired genius or hogwash.

    http://www.generalfusion.com/ [generalfusion.com]

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