Energy from the stars with ITER, the first nuclear fusion reactor
A wide-range international scientific enterprise to demonstrate that it is possible to artificially produce fusion energy, by mimicking the natural process that fuels the stars. This is how the idea to build ITER was born: the first experimental nuclear fusion reactor. A project in which Italy plays a crucial role and that could revolutionize the electric power system.
Switzerland, November 1985. Europe was still divided by the Berlin Wall, but dialogue between the United States and Soviet Union began to revive. The U.S. President Ronald Reagan and the URSS Secretary Michail Gorbačëv met during a summit in Geneva, that is considered as a crucial step for a new chapter in the history of disarmament. This resulted into the idea of bringing together the Earth major powers to work on an ambitious scientific joint programme that would serve a peaceful objective: to find a safe, clean and abundant solution to the world’s energy requirements.
This is how the early negotiations for the design of the first experimental fusion reactor started. A huge “scientific laboratory” for testing the possibility to obtain controlled nuclear fusion: a process that has not been artificially experimented yet, aimed at reproducing the mechanism that naturally fuels the stars. The final objective is to “build” an energy future more sustainable for everybody. Differently from nuclear fission, the basis of power production of the current nuclear power stations, controlled fusion would have the advantage to be safer thanks to the absence of chain reactions and highly radioactive long-term waste.
The long international negotiations to define the details of the project were completed in 2006, with the signature of an agreement to build, in Southern France, ITER - International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor. Among all the countries involved in the project all over the World – including Japan, Russia, United States, China, Korea, India and European Union – Italy stands out. Our country has the task to develop a crucial element of the reactor: a beam of accelerated neutral atoms with a power of 16 million watts, aimed at heating plasma in order to trigger, the nuclear fusion reaction inside ITER.
On January 2014, the Padua Research Area of the National Research Council (CNR) hosted the inauguration of PRIMA – Padua Research Iter Megavolt Accelerator – laboratory. Here, Italian researchers together with their European, Japanese and Indian colleagues will carry out the construction and testing of two prototype machines: the atom source SPIDER – Source for the Production of Ions of Deuterium Extracted from an RF plasma – and the 1 million Volt acceleration system MITICA – Megavolt ITER Injector and Concept Advancement. The activities will be performed by the Consorzio RFX including CNR, University of Padua, National Institute for Nuclear Physics (INFN), Italian National Agency for New Technologies, Energy and Sustainable Economic Development (ENEA) and Acciaierie Venete, in cooperation with English, German, French, Japanese and Indian laboratories.
The experiments – that will start in 2015 for SPIDER, and in 2017 for MITICA – will continue until 2020, when ITER is planned to “start”, with the achievement of first plasma. The objective of the experimental reactor is to achieve a stable fusion reaction that, for at least one hour, can provide 500 Mw of power, equivalent to ten times input power. A crucial step in view of fusion electric power, that should be done by DEMO-DEMOnstration power plant, ITER’s “successor”.