Pooling resources is one key for fusion science

picture of Dr Bernard Bigot

Dr Bernard Bigot is currently University Professor of Physical Chemistry at Ecole Normale Supérieure de Lyon, Chairman of the CEA (since January 2009) and French Senior Representative for the ITER project in France since 2007. He graduated from the Ecole Normale Supérieure and obtained a PhD in Physical Sciences in 1979 from the Pierre et Marie Curie University (Paris). Bernard Bigot has contributed to more than 70 scientific publications on quantum physical chemistry and about 25 articles on energy policy. Between 1993 and 1997 he worked as Director General of Research and Technology and as Chief of Staff of the Research Minister in 2002 and 2003.

The conditions of our energy supply have numerous economic and social consequences for our daily lives. As an example, the cost of importing fossil fuels represented more than €62 billion in 2011 for France alone and has doubled in the last six years. The rising world population will practically double the energy demand as early as 2030, despite the indispensable efforts to save and use energy more efficiently. Furthermore we need to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions drastically so as to mitigate the impact of climate change.

Rising to this challenge of a sustainable energy supply are several generations of researchers and engineers at the French Atomic Energy and Alternative Energies Commission (CEA). They have been developing research programmes to offer a broad range of solutions required to produce safe and economically attractive carbon-free energy: development of nuclear Generation III and Generation IV fission reactors, research for fusion energy and development of innovative technologies for renewable energies such as solar, energy storage, fuel cells and biofuels.

The various energy technologies under investigation by CEA not only differ in their concepts, but also in their stages of development. On one hand, some CEA teams are currently getting ready to commission a pre-industrial prototype designed to produce 2nd generation biofuels. On the other hand, fusion research is still considered a field of basic research with a first deuterium-tritium demonstration plant, DEMO, planned for 2040. Fission, in comparison is an established energy source that now has to be enhanced with innovations in order to make nuclear reactors always safer and able to recycle spent fuels and depleted uranium, reducing the amount of ultimate waste products. The strength of the CEA lies in its capacity to bring together a broad set of technical competences within a global strategy and fusion benefits from such an organisation.

The “Institut de Recherches sur la Fusion Magnétique” (IRFM), which runs the Tore Supra superconducting tokamak at Cadarache, conducts most of the CEA’s research in fusion energy. IRFM finds invaluable support from several other CEA units, which boast first-class teams specialised in various fields essential for the progress of fusion R&D, such as numerical simulation, materials, thermohydraulics, cryogenics, nuclear safety, robotics, tritium management or the operation of nuclear facilities. Indeed, pooling resources, so as to draw on a broad set of competences is essential to reach our challenging goals. Clearly, fusion will benefit from CEA’s existing contacts to industrial partners in other more advanced industrial fields and from its experience in bringing new technologies to market. CEA has been successful in the fusion field as in many other fields due to its variety of competences and we believe from that assessment that the ITER project will benefit from pooling resources with European or other research organisations throughout the world.

For this reason, I am extremely pleased with the strong ties that have been forged between the CEA and European research organisations associated by EFDA, and likewise with the ITER project. We are now ready to move on to the next big step by building the ITER facility at Cadarache and by preparing its research programme for the following 20 years. After many key preliminary results for more than 40 years, this will be a decisive stage in the scientific and technological development of fusion energy. Fusion is expected to deliver its first power to the grid in less than 50 years and the results of this ITER prototype will be vital at a time when strategic choices will have to be made.

CEA, the French Atomic Energy and Alternative Energies Commission, is a government-funded technology research organisation, mostly focussed on energy and defence matters.