June 28, 2005
The Six Parties of the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor
(ITER) consortium have reached a decision in their negotiations, specifying
the location of the world�s first energy-producing fusion reactor in
Cadarache, in Southern France. The �10 billion project will generate
multiple research opportunities for the Plasma Physics Research Centre at
the Ecole Polytechnique F�d�rale de Lausanne (EPFL).
ITER's future location in Cadarache will be doubly beneficial to EPFL. In
its role as a National Centre of Competence, The Plasma Physics Research
Centre (CRPP) is fully integrated with the nuclear fusion research programs
within the Euratom-Swiss Confederation framework. CRPP will thus be called
upon to participate in various specialized, high technology facets of the
This level of participation will confirm and solidify CRPP�s reputation in
the plasma physics community. Minh Quang Tran, director of the Centre, also
holds a position as president of the European Fusion Development Agreement,
the organization that coordinates all fusion-related technology as well as
all work involving the JET (Joint European Torus), a intermediate-generation
tokamak-type experimental fusion reactor.
�The synergies that will develop in this research environment will reinforce
the links between EPFL and the main European centers of fusion research
excellence, in their common quest for a new and promising means of safe,
efficient and sufficient energy production,� notes Tran. As a key player in
this international involvement, Switzerland also stands to benefit in a
larger sense from industrial spin-offs that will result from the project.
An enormous energy potential
Nuclear fusion represents a practically unlimited source of energy. Under
extremely high pressures and temperatures, light atoms � isotopes of
hydrogen, such as deuterium and tritium�come together, or fuse, producing
enormous amounts of energy. A prime example is the Sun, where huge
gravitational pressure allows fusion to take place at about 10 million
degrees Celsius. At the gravitational pressure we experience on Earth,
higher temperatures are required to generate fusion, and to date only
tokamak-type reactors are capable of reaching the 100 million-degree-Celsius
threshold where energy can be produced.
In the last several years, considerable technological progress has been made
in fusion research, leading to high expectations for the ITER. With this
reactor, studies done at the CRPP and elsewhere on the feasibility and
functioning of a nuclear fusion-based centre of electricity production can
be brought to a successful conclusion, and the groundwork can be laid for
the first prototype commercial fusion reactor. Up to this point
energy-producing nuclear reactors have used fission, not fusion, to generate
energy. Fusion reactors have important advantages; power stations will be
inherently safe because �meltdown� or �runaway reactions� cannot occur, and
these reactors do not generate long-lasting radioactive waste. Fusion
reactors don�t emit greenhouse gases, and the basic fuels � hydrogen and
lithium � are abundant and available everywhere.
The energy production of ITER will be unprecedented: a single gram of
deuterium fused with one and a half grams of tritium will produce ten
million times as much energy as a gram of oil. The successful launch of
these new technologies in the ITER reactor will set the stage for the
successful use of fusion as an inexhaustible and sustainable energy source.
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