A nuclear leap

Print edition : January 27, 2006

The ITER design. -

India becomes the seventh member of the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor consortium and a full partner in its fusion project.

DECEMBER 6, 2005, marked an important day for India's modest, but significant, research in nuclear fusion. India won the recognition of the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER, pronounced `eater') fusion project and secured admission into the consortium as a full partner to become its seventh member. The other ITER members are the European Union (E.U.), China, Japan, the Republic of Korea, Russia and the United States.

Dubious arguments and unfounded concerns of nuclear proliferation by some members had prevented India's entry in the past. With the initiative and support of the E.U. over the last year and more, these became non-issues. Significantly, making matters easier, the U.S., which had been opposed to India's participation earlier, also extended its support as part of the Indo-U.S. nuclear agreement of July 18.

Nuclear fusion is the process that powers the burning of stars, including the sun. In the familiar process of nuclear fission, heavier nuclei (like uranium and plutonium) break up into lighter ones and release energy in the form of energetic neutrons. In fusion reaction, on the other hand, the lightest of nuclei, like those of hydrogen (H) and its isotopes deuterium (D or 2H) and tritium (T or 3H), combine to form heavier elements (such as helium, 4He) and energetic neutrons.

However, to replicate this stellar mechanism on earth requires the bringing together of the lighter nuclei at very high temperatures of over 100 million degrees Celsius - as it is in the core of the sun - in a controlled manner and sustain their fusion over long periods of time. This is done by heating isotopes of hydrogen to create a plasma of D and T ions (atoms which are stripped off their electrons and are, therefore, charged) and confining them in a toroidal or doughnut-shaped reactor called tokamak with the help of powerful superconducting magnets. D and T nuclei would then collide and fuse to produce helium nuclei and neutrons. The energy of the uncharged high-energy neutrons that escape from the tokamak can be converted to heat, which can be used to generate electricity. The positively charged helium nuclei, trapped by the magnetic fields, will help to sustain further fusion reactions.

The main problem so far has been to sustain the toroidal plasma for sufficiently long duration. The longest confinement time achieved so far - that was in 2002 at the French fusion research centre at Cadarache, which has now been chosen as the site for ITER - is 210 seconds. The aim of the ambitious multi-billion-dollar ITER programme is to demonstrate the scientific and technological feasibility of fusion as a sustained long-term energy source of the future.

The ITER, whose design was finalised in 2001, is expected to be up and running by 2015. It is designed to achieve a ten-fold energy gain (over the energy spent in generating the high-temperature plasma) to produce about 500 MW of power from a plasma that is sustained for about 400 seconds. With India's entry, half of humanity is now participating in this unique scientific mission to devise ways of tapping this enormous source of energy for the long-term future. Experts believe that nuclear fusion as an energy source may become a reality not before 2050.

The project began in 1985 as a collaboration between the then Soviet Union, the U.S., Japan and Europe (through the nuclear industry consortium Euratom) which was established under the aegis of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). After the conceptual design activities during 1988-1990, engineering design activities began in July 1992 (with the Russian Federation replacing the Soviet Union) to be completed over a six-year time-frame. The final design report, which provided the first comprehensive design of a fusion reactor based on well-established physics and technology, was adopted in July 1998.

Though it fulfilled the technical objectives of the project, U.S. scientists doubted the feasibility of the ITER design to ignite. Coupled with the domestic political criticism over the huge investment in ITER, the U.S. pulled out in late 1998 in favour of investing wholly in its domestic fusion project FIRE (Fusion Ignition Research Experiment) under the Department of Energy. The ITER parties too around then realised that financial constraints could render the final design unviable. It was then decided to scale down the performance parameters, while keeping the same basic design principles, so that the direct capital cost would be reduced by about 50 per cent. Finally, in 2001, an acceptable detailed design, which met the overall programme objectives, was arrived at.

The project has been estimated to cost about $10-12 billion over its complete life of about 20 years. The direct capital costs of ITER have been calculated as (at 2000 prices) $3,800 million. Staff and R&D (research and development) costs during construction add a further $760 million. Operation costs are estimated at $260 million a year and decommissioning costs at about $470 million. Negotiations on the joint implementation of the project - including cost-sharing, construction, operation and decommissioning - thus began in June 2001 among the parties, which now included Canada as well. The negotiations were subsequently joined in by China and the U.S. (which rejoined) in February 2003 and by Korea in June 2003.

The preliminary cost-sharing formula arrived at among the six parties in 2003 was as follows: 90 per cent of the items would be provided "in kind" - in the form of equipment, products, industrial hardware, software, research staff and technical personnel - with the remainder being purchased through a joint fund under the control of the ITER Organisation, which would be eventually formed. While the party that will host the ITER reactor on its soil would contribute 50 per cent of the total cost, the remaining five would contribute 10 per cent each.

A critical issue for the project to move forward was the site selection for the reactor. It was originally expected that, after parties interested in hosting ITER offered respective sites in 2001, the site selection and adaptation of the design for the chosen site would be completed by 2002. But this turned out to be far too optimistic. There were four sites to begin with - Europe offered Cadarache in France and Vandellos in Spain, Japan offered Rokkasho-mura, Canada offered Clarington in Ontario - which narrowed down to two in December 2003. In December 2002, Canada withdrew its offer owing to insufficient financial backing from its government and Europe chose Cadarache over Vandellos as its sole offer. In December 2003, Canada also withdrew its membership from ITER negotiations.

The December 2003 ministerial meeting in Washington for deciding on the site, however, ended in a deadlock, with Cadarache being backed by the E.U., Russia and China and Rokkasho being backed by the U.S., Japan and Korea. Technically, both sites met the requirements but neither Europe nor Japan was willing to back down its offer in favour of the other. The U.S. backed the Japanese site because it wanted Japan to back its claim for locating the other big science project of Linear Collider, the international high-energy particle accelerator project based on the joint U.S. - Japan technology.

The withdrawal of Canada also meant the loss of its share of financial and material contribution to the project. And the E.U., which has been at the vanguard of ITER, began to encourage other countries such as India to join. For India, this encouragement came through Sir David King, the Science Adviser to the British government, who visited India in March 2004. But opposition from other members, the U.S. in particular, had still to be contended with. In reality, it was this site politics, rather than proliferation issues, that was behind the U.S.' opposition to admitting India and Brazil - it feared that the vote may tilt in favour of Cadarache.

After the encouragement from Europe, collaboration in fusion research under ITER was mooted at the Indo-E.U. summit in November 2004. Soon after, a European delegation too visited the Institute of Plasma Research (IPR) of the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) in Ahmedabad, where Indian research on fusion was being carried out, to assess the Indian capabilities in the field. From the Indian side, a two-day meeting of scientists, engineers and leaders of the Indian heavy engineering industry took place at the IPR in February 2005 to take a detailed stock of what India could offer in terms of technology and industrial hardware if it became party to ITER. India also began talking to the various ITER partners. According to a Press Trust of India report of March 13, 2005, from Brussels, a senior E.U. official told a group of visiting journalists that discussions were already under way for India's admission into the ITER consortium.

Meanwhile, after protracted and often acrimonious political wrangling among the parties, the decision to site ITER at Cadarache was finally taken on June 28. A compromise formula between Europe and Japan over cost-sharing, in particular the respective contributions of industrial hardware and personnel to the project, made this possible. According to this, the host, Europe, will forgo 10 per cent from its 50 per cent share of industrial contracts and research personnel. That is, in return for only 10 per cent contribution, Japan will get 20 per cent of the contracts as well as 20 per cent of the research staff posts. The resolution of the long-standing deadlock paved the way for the project to move forward as well as enable other potential countries, such as India, to join.

On July 8, India made a formal request to join ITER through a letter from Anil Kakodkar, Chairman, Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), to Achilleas Mitsos, Director-General (Research) of the European Commission. This letter was considered by the ITER negotiating committee at its September 12 meeting at Cadarache, following which an ITER fact-finding mission (comprising technical and administrative delegations) visited India in early October. The mission visited the IPR and other centres to appraise itself of the Indian fusion research programme as well as industrial capabilities relevant to ITER.

The report of the ITER exploratory mission on India was considered at the October 24 ITER negotiations meeting in Chengdu, China, which identified a series of steps that needed to be taken by the parties to enable a decision on India. After the next ITER meeting in Vienna on November 7, where every member favoured India's entry, India was directed to apply formally to the ITER parties for joining the consortium. This formality completed, India was admitted as a full partner early in December at the ITER meeting at Jeju Island in Korea.

To ensure that the U.S. did not vote against India's inclusion, securing a commitment from the U.S. to that effect in the July 18 Indo-U.S. nuclear agreement was important. While this was a significant factor in the passage of a unanimous decision on India, the claim by U.S. officials and some Indian media commentators that Indian entry was entirely because of the U.S. is grossly misplaced. Firstly, since the decision was by consensus, the vote of each ITER party was as important as that of the U.S. Secondly, given the itinerant U.S. position in the ITER over the years, it is unlikely to have had any dominant influence over the others. In fact, U.S.' commitment to the ITER project continues to be doubtful given the ongoing controversy over the issue in its domestic politics.

Consider the following statement on the ITER project by the Republican Sherwood Boehlert, Chairman of the House Committee on Science, on November 9, 2005: "I want to make clear to everyone concerned that I will do everything in my power to kill the ITER project if there is not an agreement by March [2006] that the domestic fusion programme has to be scaled back to pay for ITER. I am not going to allow the U.S. to enter into an international commitment that it cannot afford... . The fusion community will have to be realistic. It cannot have all its current projects and ITER." More than anything else, it was the groundwork done by India and the E.U. since mid-2004 that made India's membership a reality.

With India's admission, the cost-sharing formula had to be slightly adjusted. According to sources inside the ITER meeting at Jeju, Korea, the six non-host partners will now contribute 6/11th of the total cost - a little over half - while E.U. will put in the rest. As for the industrial contribution, following the compromise worked out between the E.U. and Japan, the shares are slightly different: China, India, Korea, Russia and the U.S. will contribute 1/11th each, Japan 2/11th and Europe 4/11th.

So how is India likely to contribute to ITER against this agreed share? Since India entered the scene late, it obviously did not get the allocations it would have ideally preferred to get. Others' shares of hardware procurements had already been decided by consensus in 2003. For instance, even though India has established industrial capability in fabricating magnets and R&D capability in plasma diagnostics, there seemed to be no room for these.

The ITER mission, during its interaction with the industry, apparently evinced great interest in India's heavy engineering capability and Information Technology (IT) capability for data acquisition and control systems and related software. According to sources in the IPR, it is likely to be a mixed bag on India's plate because of certain amount of give and take in the bargain. For instance, as part of the package, India may have to agree to provide water-cooling systems, the sources said. But the ultimate significance of India's participation is in the opportunities for Indian scientists and engineers to gain hands-on experience in a large-scale reactor and the consequent leapfrogging in physics and technology of this promising energy source of the future as the ITER construction and operations get under way. And that is now set to happen in 2006.

At the end of the Jeju meeting, the negotiators completed their task of deciding on the remaining key issues such as decision-making and management and intellectual property. The meeting also approved the appointment of Kaname Ikeda as the Director-General for the prospective ITER Organisation. The project has now moved to a political level with the finalisation of the Joint Implementation Agreement (JIA) among the parties that will replace the existing transitional arrangements. The JIA will soon be opened for partners' signature and ratification.

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