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A unique exercise in scientific diplomacy

23 March 2020

ITER: The Giant Fusion Reactor, by Michel Claessens, Springer

One of ITER's two 800-ton vacuum-vessel assembly tools
Looking up One of ITER's two 800-ton vacuum-vessel assembly tools. Credit: Luca Zanier

The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor — now simply ITER — is a unique exercise in scientific diplomacy, and a politically driven project. It is also the largest international collaboration, and a milestone in the technological history of mankind. These, I would say, are the main conclusions of Michel Claessens’ new book ITER: The Giant Fusion Reactor. He unfolds a fascinating story which criss-crosses more than 40 years of the history of nuclear fusion in a simple, but not simplistic, way which is accessible to anyone with a will to stick to facts without prejudices. The full range of opinions on ITER’s controversial benefits and detriments are exposed and discussed in a fair way, and the author never hides his personal connection to the project as its head of communications for many years.

ITER Claessens cover

Why don’t we more resolutely pursue a technology that could contribute to the production of carbon-free energy? ITER’s path has been plagued by rivalries between strong personalities, and difficult technical and political decisions, though, in retrospect, few domains of science and technology have received such strong and continuous support from governments and agencies. Claessens’ book begins by discussing the need for fusion among other energy sources — he avoids selling fusion as the “unique and final” solution to energy problems — and quickly brings us to the heart of a key problem humanity is facing today. Travelling through history, the author shows that when politicians take decisions of high inspiration, as at the famous fireside summit between presidents Reagan and Gorbachev in Geneva in November 1985, where the idea for a collaborative project to develop fusion energy for peaceful purposes was born, they change the course of history — for the better! The book then goes through the difficulties of setting up a complex project animated by a political agenda (fusion was on the agenda of political summits between the USA and the USSR since the cold war) without a large laboratory backing it up.

The author shows that when politicians take decisions of high inspiration they change the course of history

Progress with ITER was made more difficult by a complex system of in-kind contributions which were not optimised for cost or technical success, but for political “return” to each member state of ITER (Europe, China, Japan, Russia, South Korea, the US, and most recently India). Claessens’ examples are striking, and he doesn’t skirt around the inevitable hot questions: what is the real cost of ITER? Will it even be finished given its multiple delays? How much of these extra costs and delays are due to the complex and politically oriented governance structures established by the partners? The answers are clear, honestly reported, and quantitative, though the author makes it clear that the numbers should be taken cum grano salis. Assessing the cost of a project where 90% of the components are in-kind contributions, with each partner having its own accounting structures, and in certain cases no desire to reveal the real cost, is a doubtful enterprise. However, we can say with some certainty that ITER is taking twice as long and likely costing more than double what was initially planned — and as the author says on more than one occasion, further delays will likely entail additional costs. By comparison, the LHC needed roughly an additional 25% in both budget and time compared to what was initially planned.

Price tag

Was the initial cost estimate for ITER simply too low, perhaps to help the project get approved, or would a better management, with a different governance structure, have performed better? Significantly, I have not met a single knowledgeable person who did not strongly express that ITER is a textbook case of bad management organisation, though in my opinion the book does not do justice to the energetic action of the current director general, Bernard Bigot. His directorate has been a turning point in ITER’s construction, and has set the project back on track in a moment of real crisis when many scientists and mangers expected the project to fail. A key question surfaces in the book: is the price tag important? ITER’s cost is peanuts compared to the EU’s budget, for example, and the cost is not significant by comparison to the promise it delivers: carbon-free energy in large quantities, at an affordable cost to environment, and based on widely distributed fuel.

Michel Claessens’ book explores different points of view without fanaticism

Though there is almost no intrinsic innovation in ITER, Claessens shows how the project has nevertheless pushed tokamak technology beyond its apparent limits by a sheer increase in size, though he neglects some key points, such as the incredible stored energy of the superconducting magnets. An incident similar to that suffered by the LHC in 2008 would be a logistical nightmare for ITER, as it contains more than three times the stored energy of the entire LHC and its detectors in an incomparably smaller volume. Comparisons with CERN are however a feature throughout the book, and a point of pride for high-energy physicists — clearly, CERN has set the standard for high-tech international collaboration, and ITER has tried to follow its example (CERN Courier October 2014 p45). Having begun my career as a plasma scientist, before turning to accelerators at the beginning of the 1980s, I know some of the stories and personalities involved, including CERN’s former Director General, and recognised father of ITER, Robert Aymar, and ITER’s head of superconductor procurement, my close friend Arnaud Devred, also now of CERN.

I recommend Michel Claessens’ well written and easy-to-read book. It is passionate and informative and explores different points of view without fanaticism. Interestingly, his conclusion is not scientific or political, but socio-philosophical in nature: ITER will be built because it can be, he says, according to a principle of “technological necessity”.

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