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The world's largest nuclear fusion project could change our planet forever — but delays and setbacks keep slowing it down

The expected full-phase completion date is now as late as 2035.

ITER, The world's largest nuclear fusion project

Photo Credit: iStock

The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), a collaboration between 35 countries, is the largest nuclear fusion project in the world, Scientific American reports. It's also set to be one of the most expensive and delayed science projects in history, thanks to defective pieces and numerous costly setbacks.

What's happening?

The reactor, located in southern France, is designed to raise hydrogen to a temperature so hot that it ionizes and forms plasma instead of gas, according to Scientific American. This chemical transformation, caused by the atoms colliding, generates electricity — via a process called nuclear fusion.

This project sounds expensive because it is. The project began in 2006 and was priced at around $6.3 billion, with an estimated completion in 2016. The most recent scope suggests the price is more like $22 billion, with the finished date around 2025. A report obtained via a lawsuit also reveals that the price could be substantially higher and face several more years of delay. 

Besides many of its parts arriving later than expected, the ITER has also faced numerous issues with the quality and durability of its materials. Several thermal shields used to keep the refrigerant cool were corroded and cracked because the welding was insufficient. 

The project has also faced many policy barriers, including a production halt in January 2022 via the French Nuclear Safety Authority (ASN). The ASN did not believe the ITER's plans were sufficient to stop radiation, thus putting personnel at risk. 

Why is this significant?

Nuclear fission, the splitting of atoms, has dominated the atomic energy lexicon. Although it has been assessed since the 1950s, fusion has never before been completed at the scale of the ITER. If successful, the ITER will generate 500 megawatts of fusion power for every 50 megawatts of energy heating input — and give scientists more insight into large-scale fusion development. 

Fusion has numerous environmental benefits compared to fission or other carbon-pollution-producing energy sources like coal or oil. It can produce four million times more energy than burning coal, oil, or gas and four times as much as nuclear fission, according to the ITER website.

Its only byproduct is helium, an inert clean gas; no "long-lived" nuclear waste is produced. Fusion is also preferable from a safety perspective because the tokamak fusion device can more rapidly cool itself, which prevents meltdowns, and the enriched materials in the reactor can't be used to create nuclear weapons.

What is being done about this? 

A new timetable for the project is set to be completed by the end of 2023, which includes cost modifications and considerations of the ASN's concerns. The expected full-phase completion date is now as late as 2035.

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