“ITER: an announced disaster.” (2010 but still available…)

Article in Libération August 10, 2010 under the title “Nuclear: stop Iter …”

So what we feared is happening: the estimated cost of ITER construction to go from 5 to 15 billion euros, it is question of making budgets suffer the consequences of funding for scientific research European. This is exactly the disaster we feared. It is time to abandon it.

ITER is the experimental reactor 7 countries decided to build in Cadarache (Provence) to test the ability to generate electricity from nuclear fusion. These countries are the United States, Europe, Russia, South Korea, Japan, China and India.

Nature magazine 1 July 2010 reveals that the European contribution should increase from 2.7 to 7.2 billion euros, of which 1.4 billion to find in 2012- 2013 budget Seventh terms of European research. Europe has in fact committed to 6.5 billion euros in late July. For France, the expense will represent more than all loans (excluding salaries) available to all laboratories of physics and biology for twenty years! Many other more research, including the energy future of our planet so threatened.

Why more important?

Check the fusion to generate electricity is an old dream. But unlike fission that quickly allowed to build our current nuclear power plants, the merger poses problems for over 50 years, we can not solve.

To summarize: the method involves heating a mixture of heavy hydrogen (a plasma of deuterium and tritium) to 100 million degrees by speeding in an enclosure shaped ring. At such a temperature, the nuclei fuse, releasing a colossal energy. It is the energy released by hydrogen bombs, but ITER is not dangerous because the amounts of hydrogen are very small.

To control this energy, three major challenges must be overcome:

maintain the plasma within the chamber (it is unstable), produce tritium in industrial quantities and invent materials to enclose the plasma UHV in an enclosure of some thousands of cubic meters.

It was only from 2019 that ITER should begin studying the first difficulty. Now it seems that the most formidable is the third: violently irradiated by high-energy neutrons (14 MeV) emitted by plasma fusion, materials of the enclosure lose their mechanical strength. It was nice we say we can imagine materials that will stand the irradiation because they are both waterproof and porous, we are at least skeptical waterproof and porous, is not it contradictory? No one, so far, managed to prove otherwise.

Suffice to say that we are far from the development of a power plant prototype and a commercial seeded finally the advent of a new power generation sector. Puncture other basic research projects on the grounds that this would be an almost infinite source of energy is therefore not justified. Plasma physics is to be financed in the same way as other major areas of basic research, not beyond.

Now our energy problem is urgent.

It is immediately need to save energy and replace fossil fuels (oil, gas and coal), responsible for global warming, by clean energy. The only massive energy source that is free of carbon dioxide, is the fission at work in our current nuclear power plants.

We know that it will become sustainable when the 4th generation plants (G-IV), which will transform the current waste into fuel and thus provide clean energy for at least 5000 years.

Superphenix was a prototype. After some unavoidable technical problems for a prototype, and in spite of many administrative and political problems Superphenix worked remarkably well for a year. Its closure in 1998 resulted in a requirement of Dominique Voynet of the Greens to participate in the Jospin government.

Instead of investing in ITER, the international community and especially Europe would do better to rebuild a G-IV type of plant to improve what has already taught us Superphenix.

It could also accelerate research on other G-IV power plants, known as “molten salt”. They will use thorium, an abundant element, and whose use is less of a proliferation concerns that uranium and plutonium in the current chain.

Today, unfortunately, Euratom is clearly commissioned on the merger. Globally, although it is difficult to obtain precise figures, research appropriations related G-IV are about 10 times lower than those allocated to ITER. The only countries that build plants of this type are the Russians, Japanese and Indians.

In this time of economic crisis when looking for clean, sustainable solutions to global warming is urgent, it is essential to direct public funds toward the real priorities. They told us that ITER being engaged, it would be very expensive to stop. This argument is not satisfactory. Construction has not begun, only the field is set. If you continue, all research sectors will suffer.

This situation reminds the construction of the International Space Station, ISS. Another mammoth project, the ISS has cost 100 billion dollars and our fellow astrophysicists still remember the cuts that its construction entrained. But what served the ISS? Practically nothing. To observe the Earth or the universe, it is better to send robots into orbit, they are more stable and cheaper. In fact, the astronauts are bored up there. So they spend their time studying their own health !

ITER is likely to be similar: if built, this big machine will only serve to study the stability of the ITER plasma. 15 billion euros for that, is not it a bit much? Especially since, by 2019, this cost may be revalued again …

So rather than hide poor initial decision by a worse climbing again, it would be better finally admit that the project gigantism is disproportionate to the expectations that management appears deficient, our budgets do not allow us to continue, and transfer this money to the useful research.

Sébastien Balibar, research director at CNRS, Ecole Normale Supérieure, Paris.

Georges Charpak, Nobel Prize in Physics.

Jacques Treiner, Emeritus Professor at the University Pierre et Marie Curie, Paris.



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