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The Almighty Buck Science Politics

ITER Fusion Project Struggles To Put the Pieces Together 138

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 @11:51AM (#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.

  • TLDR (Score:5, Insightful)

    by vlm ( 69642 ) on Tuesday October 30, 2012 @11:52AM (#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.

  • by the gnat ( 153162 ) on Tuesday October 30, 2012 @12:25PM (#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 SuperBanana ( 662181 ) on Tuesday October 30, 2012 @12:43PM (#41819321)

    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 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.

    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.

  • by w_dragon ( 1802458 ) on Tuesday October 30, 2012 @01:01PM (#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 serviscope_minor ( 664417 ) on Tuesday October 30, 2012 @01:03PM (#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 tp1024 ( 2409684 ) on Tuesday October 30, 2012 @01:12PM (#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.


  • by ShanghaiBill ( 739463 ) on Tuesday October 30, 2012 @01:20PM (#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.

Honesty is for the most part less profitable than dishonesty. -- Plato