One of the biggest would-be symbols of technological advancement for our society is the development of free, ubiquitous energy that is cheap and plentiful. Scientists from all over the world have been working since 1985 to further this goal, in a collaboration project that brings together representatives of over half the world’s population from China, the EU, India, Japan, Korea, Russia and the USA. The project, originally titled “International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor” and has since been shortened to ITER, which is the latin word for “the way”.
With over 850 scientists and contractors working on the project and an experimental reactor currently under development at Cadarache in France it is a wonder that more people outside of the scientific community haven’t heard of ITER. The experimental reactor in question has been in the works for decades and the design was finally approved by the ITER council in 2001. ITER which was once going to be one of the most expensive, and arguably the most important, scientific undertakings in recent times, has had some considerable setbacks in recent years. With a 5 billion euro budget out of what was once a 20 billion dollar budget, and a massive reduction of scale, the group is also facing red tape in the form of nuclear safety laws in France.
Support for the project has wavered in recent years due to budget constraints brought on by the financial crisis, and people are wondering if this is the best path to take to sustainable energy considering the current climate. In addition, despite the promise that ITER shows, some politicians are vehemently opposed to the project due in part to the unproven nature of the technology behind it.
As of now, even the most successful venture of the same nature hasn’t been able to produce more energy than is put in. The UK-based “JET” reactor, the biggest next to the planned ITER reactor, produced only 16 MW of power with an input of 25 MW. Contrast this with the experimental reactor in Cadarche, which is projected to produce 500 MW for every 50 MW put in, and the need for this project to come to fruition becomes apparent.
Perhaps the project has a lofty goal, and perhaps ITER may not truly end up being “the way”, but true progress is not achieved by realistic undertakings. ITER seeks to push the boundaries of what we think we know and what we think is accomplishable with the technology currently available, and whether it should succeed or fail certainly the world is going to see some major advancement in the field of fusion research.