The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) will, if things go according to plan, move one step closer to becoming the world’s first functioning nuclear fusion reactor this summer when scientists conduct its inaugural test runs.
Nuclear fusion has traditionally been used as the core scientific principle behind thermonuclear warheads. But the same technology that powers our weapons of mass destruction could, theoretically, be harnessed to power our cities. This would be the first fusion reactor capable of producing more energy than it takes to operate.
If we can build and operate fusion reactors safely, we could almost certainly solve the global energy crisis for good. But that’s a big if.
Fusion is difficult
When the nuclei of two atoms fuse, they release an incredible amount of energy. The big idea behind a fusion reactor is to use a relatively tiny amount of energy to remove an immense amount. This is how the sun and other stars work – that is, why they’re so bright and release such vast amounts of heat.
Recreating the cosmos in a laboratory is an incredibly complex task. Still, it boils down to finding the suitable materials for the job and figuring out how to force the reaction we want at valuable scales.
ITER could change everything
Scientists don’t expect to begin low-power operations at the ITER site until 2025. The initial test runs, however, start this June.
This summer, researchers at EUROfusion will fire up the Joint European Torus (JET), a separate experiment designed to fine-tune the fuel and material needs for the ITER experiment ahead of its impending launch.
The main difference between JET and ITER is in scale. While JET came first, the ITER design’s inception became an essential part of the JET experiment. Scientists shut down JET for months to redesign it to work with the ITER project.
In this way, JET is a sort of proof-of-concept for ITER. It’ll help the researchers solve essential issues like fuel use and reaction optimization if all goes well.
Still, fusion is complex
There’s more to solving nuclear fusion than just getting the fuel mixture right – but that’s most of it. The conditions for controlled atomic fusion are much more challenging to achieve than, for example, just making a warhead with it that explodes. This is more of a technical and engineering problem than a safety concern, however.
Theoretically, nuclear fusion reactors are entirely safe. The kind of dangerous radiation or reactor meltdown situations that can occur with fission are, essentially, impossible with fusion.
The real problem is that it has to be done just right to produce enough energy to be helpful. And, of course, it has to be controlled, so it doesn’t create too much. This is easy to do if you imagine fusion at the one-to-one nuclei scale. But even modern supercomputers struggle to simulate fusion at scales large enough to be helpful.