ITER is THE way to fusion, we have to make it a success

Two years ago, Remmelt Haange took up his duties as Deputy Director-General for the ITER Project Department. His previous position as Technical Director of the Wendelstein 7-X project brought him to Cadarache. There, Rem faces familiar challenges but also additional complexities.

Rem, the French authorities have recently licensed the ITER construction. Is that a big step forward?

This is certainly a big step forward. We expected to receive the decree in December 2012 and it is very positive that it has been issued already in November. Now the Authorities will continue to inspect the construction, from taking concrete samples to checking our paperwork.

You’ve been appointed to ITER at a critical time for the project – you were called to Wendelstein 7-X at a similar time. Do you feel a bit like the fireman for fusion projects?

No. A fireman extinguishes a fire in a very short time and then the job is done, but ITER is a very complex project. Fusion devices are complex by nature, but ITER is more complex in two aspects. Firstly, it is a nuclear device and has to be licensed by the French regulator, which is progressing well. Secondly, ITER is more complex because all seven members want to contribute high-tech components in order to qualify their industries. As a consequence, we have six Domestic Agencies working on the blanket and four on the vacuum vessel and even more on the coils. The decision to sign the ITER Agreement this way has multiplied interfaces rather than minimised them and interfaces always create difficulties. We are already seeing cases where the interface between two contributing countries is on hold and they come to us for help. This is all new, and we will learn, but it is a lot of extra work.

How does your experience at Wendelstein 7-X help you at ITER?

Well, without Wendelstein I would not be here. The project had been in a difficult situation, and when I left it was in very good shape. Of course, many people besides me contributed to this, but EURATOM seemed to have noticed and asked me to join ITER. As I said, ITER is more complex than W 7-X. It also poses new technical challenges, the biggest of which are the toroidal field coils. Their strands have to be heat treated to become superconducting, but that process makes them rather brittle. So we wind the conductors first and then heat them. Since they slightly change their size, we can only machine the grooves in the radial plates that go inside the coils, and into which the conductors will fit, after the heat treatment. About 60 percent of the strands have been produced and many conductors are already available, so we do not see a problem or bottleneck there.

What challenges do you see ahead for ITER?

image of Seismic Pit

This Seismic Pit will support the heavy Tokamak Complex. Made up of the Tokamak, Tritium and Diagnostic buildings, the total weight of the Tokamak Complex is estimated at 360,000 tons. (Image: ITER Organization, July 2012)

Well, the main challenge that I see is the technology needed in the industries. The production of ITER components is starting throughout the world, and with such complex components, one very likely runs into difficulties. These will be solved, but it will take time. So keeping within the schedule is one of our main challenges. It is vital that we keep a very, very close eye on things and react immediately if we sense problems. We have already done so in some cases. In my experience – and this is my fifth project – this is quite normal to happen, but it is always the most difficult part, as schedule is cost. And at ITER, with seven Domestic Agencies, a few months delay here and there can quickly cost many million euros. We are under very high pressure to keep the schedule that has been set by the ITER Council.

Are you confident that ITER will stay on schedule?

We have to do everything to keep that schedule. It is hard to say for sure, but in a year or two we will be able to predict this quite accurately. We have to keep as close as we possibly can to the current schedule and that’s what we are working on. There is no visible roadblock ahead right now, but we know it is difficult.

Europe plays a large financial role in ITER. How do you view the European contribution in general?

Financially, the EU contributes 45 percent and well over 60 percent in terms of manpower. Europe also brings a lot of personnel into the higher levels, as section leaders or division heads, for instance. We receive many more applications from Europe than we do from the other member countries, partly because it is easier for Europeans to move here. Of course my wish is that the European fusion community keeps supporting us as much as possible. ITER is the way to fusion, ITER must be made a big success.

Do you have anything specific in your mind with regards to European support?

What I see is that when we have a vacancy in plasma physics, we nearly only get applications from Europe. This is a field where Europe certainly makes a very large contribution. We also need the link to the fusion community to ensure that we have young and trained people that can operate ITER for the next 20 years or so. Diagnostics and heating are other fields for which we need the expertise of the fusion community. It is not easy to write a specification for a diagnostic for the industry and to make sure that the component works on the ITER machine. Hence continued fusion community support will be required.

Rem, we thank you very much and wish you a very successful year 2013.