The fundamental problem with nuclear fusion as a mode of energy production is establishing a system that produces more power than it consumes. Heating and containing large volumes of tritium-deuterium plasma is an energy intensive business. As such, the sheer size of the planned International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor is a big advantage. Just like it is easier to keep a huge cooler full of drinks cold than to keep a single can that way, a larger volume of plasma has less surface area relative to its total energy. As such, bigger reactors have a better chance of producing net power.
The other big problems that scientists and engineers anticipate are as follows:
- No previous reactor has sustained fusion for very long. The JT-60 reactors in Japan holds the record, at 24 seconds. Because ITER is meant to operate for between 7 and fifteen minutes, it will produce a higher volume of very hot hydrogen (the product of the tritium-deuterium fusion). That hydrogen could interfere with the fusing plasma. As such, it needs to be removed from the reactor somehow. ITER plans to use a carbon-coated structure called a diverter, at the bottom of the reactor, to try to do this. It is not known how problematic the helium will be, nor how effective the diverter will prove.
- Both the diverter and the blanket that surrounds the reactor will need to be able to resist temperatures of 100 million degrees centigrade. They will also need to be able to survive the presence of large amount of radiation. It is uncertain whether the planned beryllium coatings will be adequate to deal with the latter. Prior to ITER’s construction, there are plans to test the planned materials using a specially built particle accelerator at a new facility, probably to be built in Japan. THis test facility could cost about $2.6 billion – one quarter of the total planned cost of ITER itself.
- Probably the least significant problem is converting the heat energy from the fusion reaction into electrical power. This is presumably just a matter of putting pipes carrying a fluid into the blanket, then using the expansion of that fluid to drive turbines. While this should be a relatively basic change, it is worth noting that ITER will have no capacity to generate power, and will thus need to dissipate its planned output of about 500 megawatts by other means.
None of these issues undermine the case for building ITER. Indeed, they are the primary justification for building the facility. If we already knew how to deal with these problems, we could proceed directly to building DEMO: the planned electricity-generating demonstration plant that is intended to be ITER’s successor.