The delay of ITER, the world’s largest fusion experiment which is currently being built in France, necessitates to critically review EUROfusion’s fusion roadmap, finds Programme Manager Tony Donné. What initially needs to be incorporated into ITER’s agenda, is explained by Won Namkung, the new Chair of the ITER Council in an interview with ‘Fusion in Europe’.

Pointing the finger at mismanagement

It hit as a thunderbolt, the written statement in the magazine ‘Nature’ nine months ago from Bernard Bigot, who was at the time the newly appointed Director-General of ITER. In ‘Pull together for fusion’, Bigot pointed the finger at mismanagement in his organisation and claimed major changes in the leadership of the future device were necessary to prove the feasibility of nuclear fusion as an energy source. Consequently, the fusion community waited impatiently for ITER’s new and official date for first plasma to be announced at the ITER Council in November 2015. But the meeting ended without such an announcement as the ITER Council desired to first assess the new plans and timeline.

Revising the roadmap

Being aware of the upcoming delay and taking a chance, EUROfusion had already decided to revise its current roadmap towards realising fusion energy in October 2015. The consortium which put ITER at its heart is currently renewing the document from 2012 with the help of five mission groups. Every three weeks, the experts meet, either in person or via video conference. “ITER’s delay is a chance to check again what can be done in a cheaper way and at any earlier time using Europe’s existing devices”, says Tony Donné, EUROfusion’s Programme Manager.

If EUROfusion won’t, ITER must

In particular, the latest proposal to extend the Joint European Torus (JET) schedule to 2020 will strengthen investigations into the ITER-like wall. Moreover, Tony Donné advocates internationalisation of JET. This means, training future ITER operators in JET’s control room beyond 2020 would ease procedures in a well-oiled environment with experienced staff at hand. Additionally, the European community would be able to test components for ITER in all of its devices and help with the design of diagnostic systems. “If we don’t take on challenges in fusion research beforehand, ITER will have to do it“, states Donné decisively. Bernard Bigot agrees: “I appreciate the consistent support EUROfusion has shown for ITER. Clearly, the ITER project will be going through a pivotal transition for the next few years, during which we need to work jointly and closely with our partners.”

Feeding the grid by the middle of the century

As Europe’s fusion community keeps itself busy maintaining its goal to feed the grid with fusion electricity by the middle of the century, Fusion in Europe asked how the re-structuring is progressing. Won Namkung, Chair of the ITER council since the start of this year, speaks out in favour of Europe’s impact on ITER’s success and names the most important experiments for the international tokamak.

The ITER Council in November presented a number of milestones which have been reached so far. But the community is still waiting for a new timeline in order to adjust its work properly. What can you tell them?
A new baseline is being worked on, to be approved at the June 2016 ITER Council meeting. The milestones are being used by the ITER Council in the interim, as a monitoring tool, to ensure that project momentum is maintained while additional evaluation is ongoing.

Science journalist and fusion supporter Daniel Clery expects that the first plasma in ITER’s vessel will not be created before 2025. What do you say to that?
We are projecting delays beyond what was stated in the 2010 baseline, which had initially predicted First Plasma in 2019, a date that was later revised to 2020. No new official schedule has been set yet. The Director-General has made a proposal, the Council is still deliberating; and the ITER Council has agreed not to publish until we have a “consolidated” date to which all parties agree.

How important is the European impact on reaching ITER’s milestones in 2016/2017?
Fusion for Energy is the most important domestic agency at this point, since it is in charge of building construction and most of the vacuum vessel components. Progress in these areas is critical in order to achieve the milestones for 2016/2017.

What does it mean for you personally to have become the new Chair of the ITER Council during such troubled times?
Although some might call these “troubled times,” I think that the ITER project is at a turning point. In the last few months we have been achieving incremental milestones, and there is a greater feeling of progress. The next few months will be critical in setting the future direction of the project, and I am confident that the project is heading in the right direction.

Director-General Bernard Bigot said that he and the ITER staff will be “catalysts for progress”. How will you make sure that the organisation maintains its momentum?
My job will be to keep everyone focused on the main goal, which is to complete the machine. In the past, there has been an ongoing temptation, to modify the design in accordance with the latest science developments. Since Director-General Bigot took over, we have defined the set of ITER features and then frozen the design. This has been mostly successful, but there is still work to be done. In addition, I will lead the ITER Council in monitoring the completion of milestones.

What is the foremost problem that the ITER organisation must solve by the next meeting?
Completing the review of the proposals from the Council’s last meeting and additional iterations is the highest priority between now and the June Council. The ITER Council Review Group (ICRG) is now evaluating the new baseline. In parallel, the central team and domestic agencies are working together on a series of iterations of the baseline that take into account the budgetary constraints and the inter-related in-kind contributions of each ITER member. This will ensure that each ITER member can fully commit to the new baseline.


What is the ITER Council?

A group of 35 nations have joined forces for the world’s largest fusion experiment to come: China, India, Japan, Korea, Russia and the United States along with 28 European member states (plus Switzerland) combined under the umbrella of EURATOM. Representatives of the members form the ITER Council. This is the governing body that supervises the work of the ITER Organization. The Council is responsible, in accordance with the ITER Agreement (from 2006), for appointing the Director-General and senior staff, adopting and amending the Project Resources Management and Human Resources Regulations, and controlling the annual budget.  Each ITER member has created a Domestic Agency to fulfil its responsibilities. The agency ‘Fusion for Energy’, for example, seeks to attract the European industry and manages their contributions.’ To sum it up: Taken together, the ITER members represent three continents, in over 40 languages, with half of the world’s population and 85 percent of global gross domestic product.