The — probably — most challenging project management endeavour in the entire world

ITER project for fusion energy reactor


Fusion for Energy F4E

How can project management standards deal with one-off, oddly complex gigaprojects?

When the project management body of knowledge has to sustain not just a complex, high-tech endeavour, but one where participant members represent half of the population of the world, and the stakeholders represent literally all of humankind in pursuit of a free, unlimited, inexhaustible source of energy, proven projects’ practices and standards require more than an entirely customized approach. When confining a Hydrogen plasma at hundreds of millions of degrees within a magnetic virtual container produced by the largest superconductors ever built, and generating magnetic fields exceeding the one from planet Earth, when such adventures looked more than enough for a century challenge, the approaches to set up the right project management (PM) for it adds up as an equivalent defy to the technical challenges themselves. This paper will review the ITER fusion project as a project management case study for these kinds of gigaprojects that appeared typically a few times in the last century but will be a normal occurrence in the decades to come, thanks to the feasibility of large-scale technology ventures, bringing a change of paradigm to vast social and scientific communities, and in some cases, to the entire population of the Earth.

Keywords: gigaprojects, megaprojects, complexity, stakeholders


The project to build the world's largest tokamak, a magnetic device that has been designed to prove the scientific and technical feasibility of fusion as a large-scale and carbon-free source of energy, had from its conception the challenges of a first-of-a-kind (FOAK) new paradigm project.

The overall technical complexity and the involvement of technologies, materials, or processes being at the edge of feasibility (needing research and development along project execution) together with a rather eccentric, special-purpose project organisation firmly allied into a Gilgamesh epic. The ITER project is not only the most ambitious energy project in the world today and one of the largest projects in human history, it is also an overwhelming venture of collaboration that requires a singular organisation to gently balance project members’ objectives and expectations. ITER represents the conquering of one of the frontiers in science: reproducing on Earth the boundless energy that fuels the Sun and other stars. But it exemplifies also, and perhaps above all, the real collaboration opportunities for often confronted governments and ways of thinking toward a common goal for the sake of the whole planet's wealth. As any rara avis, it requires much care to sustain its endangered life cycle.


A few technical features can be spot-mentioned to effectively depict the technical challenge of ITER in any science, engineer, or layman's mind. ITER will design, manufacture, and operate the largest and most integrated superconducting magnet system ever built in the world, producing a magnetic field 280,000 times the Earth's magnetic field. The operation temperatures of plasma inside its vacuum vessel will reach 150 million degrees Celsius, 10 times more than the temperature at Sun's core. A few meters away, the magnets will be cooled at 4K (-269.15 degrees Celsius). More than one million components will be assembled with (sub)millimeter precision, requiring several million-man hours and tens of thousands schedule activities. A 400,000-tonne nuclear-rated tokamak complex edifice will be required to house the ITER reactor, weighing by itself some 23,000 tonnes, as much as three Eiffel Towers. And the like.


Even with such a high-tech and challenging environment, it is certain that a respectable portion of the time cake since project execution started has been consumed in addressing non-engineering but project management issues. Why could that be? Could this situation be linked to the specific nature of megaprojects? Much has already been written about their recurrent and stubborn performance issues: The megaprojects paradox1, the break-fix model2, the iron law of megaprojects3, the one-billion sunk budget4, and so on.

Let us first look at a few specific traits originating some of the ITER-specific project management backbreaking features. The ITER project can be well-called a gigaproject in terms of its management defies: a globe-spanning collaboration of 35 nations in three continents, representing half of the population of the world and 85% of global gross domestic product (with over 40 languages and eight time zones with 14-hour time differences). Project sponsors agreed to organise themselves as a multi-head hydra, representing the seven participating members as signatories of the ITER Agreement concluded in 2006 (China, the European Union, India, Japan, Korea, Russia, and the United States), and an international organisation (ITER IO) with a central coordinating and supervisory role. The seven domestic agencies, DAs, (with an asymmetric sharing of 45.6% by Europe and 9.1% by each other member) were mandated to procure nine-tenths of their share on the project in the form of in-kind deliveries and the international organization (IO) to act as the design, assembly, and installation authority. This 35-year collaboration agreement (including construction, operation, and decommissioning), paved the way of work for more than 1,000 project-dedicated staff from all parties, plus many hundreds of contractors.

With a €13 billion construction investment, the project has to cope with the design, procurement, manufacture, testing, and commissioning of over one million components. Many of the ITER components were split into pieces, allowing different partners to work on technically exciting subsystems, with extra difficulties regarding assembly tolerances alignment and performance.

Like any other megaproject, ITER has no real similar previous experience to benchmark the project organisation and project management. Organisational process assets do not exist or worse, are inherited from sponsor's organisations without adaptation to the project/megaproject environment. The ITER project has an extended horizon of procurement, manufacturing, construction, assembly, commissioning, and operation, with most career paths unable to withstand the entire life cycle. ITER has to comply with French safety regulations as verified regularly through audit and inspection by the French nuclear authorities, in order to meet regulatory principles consituting the applicable legal basis at any time. The project had to organise around fast-tracked schedules with rush to start construction without completion of a robust and vigorous project planning phase. It often has suffered from scope creep with the need to redefine many requirements as key subsystems’ final designs were advancing, with critical impact in most advanced interfaces. It has to manage a complex and intrincate set of stakeholders with risk of hidden and/or changing agendas. The value for money of the investment does not account apparently for key project intangibles but, at most, for standard benefits/risk approaches. There is a need to manage dissimilar intellectual property rights, staff regulations, and dispute resolution mechanisms. All project partners have to assure compliance with export control, non-proliferation, and peaceful uses regulations for concerned items. The global politics and economic issues between members can generate waves that weaken or strenghten commitment to the project. The exposure to global disasters in the extended project life cycle is more than a mere risk (e.g., earthquake and tsunami in Japan in 2011) affecting some of the installations producing components for ITER. The risk management and mitigation actions have usually to confront quite different risk threshholds, cultures, and appetites from members and from future operators. And not to be forgotten, ITER is a project that was given an ad hoc, sui generis management organisation as the result of political counterbalances and equilibriums required for the occasion. DAs are bound to cope with assigned in-kind production costs, no matter of due expenses, meanwhile, IO has to assure endorsement from authorities to operate, and with the best possible performance.


As the megaproject research action (Brookes, 2015) has reported key drivers for megaproject delivery, performance could be summarized in three following points:

  • Engaging external stakeholders
  • Designing good governance
  • Learning across megaprojects

Stakeholder management might become a real challenge with complex and unusual project setups like in ITER. Much effort is to be invested also in a multifaceted and multibody governance, with a set of central organisations, plus series of project members, dedicated committees, boards, agencies, and so forth, overseeing the project execution, in the case of ITER. When megaprojects step into trouble, the support from an extensive set of disregarded stakeholders, representing a nice portion of the huge expected societal benefit, might be profoundly missed.

Regarding governance of complex megaprojects like ITER, it might not come as a surprise that a pristine and dynamic decision making and overall recognisable authority in line with standard project management standards was largely omitted. Most megaprojects resulting from a singular international collaboration might be built upon a high-level project charter, reflecting basic rules for project sharing contentment by signing parties. And it could be a real challenge to align them into a coherent and robust project management environment. A project management authority, for instance, could be difficult to be traced. Instead, a series of empowered individuals and multi-party, different in nature, geographically dispersed boards share, in a more or less intrincate way, project management roles. The absence of a dynamic decision maker, within the agreed perimeter of project-approved baselines and/or global leadership, is challenging due to the cultural differences and management styles by sponsors. This is another initial crack prone to develop into larger damage as the megaproject evolves.

In the case of ITER, much effort has already been invested in governance improvement following a series of periodical expert assessments and regular management audits. These efforts have upgraded considerable ITER governance, for instance, with the designation of an executive project board acting in a project manager role (by consensus) or with the setup of a shared fund (a common pot) to finance approved scope changes. Even with ad hoc improvements, it is to be expected that megaprojects be confronted with governance hesitations that are to be traced back to its origins, its singularity and the unicity. The use of special-purpose-entities (SPEs) for gigaproject governance has been signaled to be a risk in itself. The learning curve will, in most occasions, require prolonged, unavailable periods of time. A possible solution to this paradox would be to allow a generous planning phase to conceive, test, and grease all governance processes and tools before execution starts. That comes usually as an intolerable aspiration. As the classical joke states: projects happen in two ways; first you plan, and then you execute or you start executing, then stop, then plan, and then...The second option seems to reign in a megaprojects environment.

Not allowing for that extended trial and continuous improvement planning period could be a major mistake that could torture any megaproject without pity. The singular nature of megaprojects agreements seems to drive sponsors in automatic mode into conceiving a setup of governance that equals or exceeds the special complexity of the endeavour. In the case of ITER, the challenge in governance is increased due to the fact that both the international organisation and each participating member have established their own governance for the occasion.

The contractor-client relationship challenges could also scale in megaprojects, resulting in megaconfrontations and eventually megaclaims, with direct impact in the form of budget and schedule overruns. It has to be reminded that the gigaprojects are by all means nanostructures for what concerns legal powers. Many of the contractors for these projects will be largely industrial, multinational contractors or joint ventures, with a well-treated department of seasoned, highly productive legal professionals.


When addressing unique and complex megaprojects like ITER, a selected few elements are to be given extraordinary attention, much more than for regular projects. Let us see a few of them and recollect some others already mentioned.

An initial point might consist of meticulous naming. Not for the project itself, but for the category that it belongs to. The challenge to be put forward: is it really a project? An ultimate essence of many gigaprojects could be assumed to be the pioneer nature of their scope. Hence, it might be standard that gigaprojects contain not little R&D effort embedded within the “project scope.” Somehow, the idea of the project expressed in “the temporary endeavor undertaken to create a unique product, service or result” (PMI, 2013, p. 31) would not match completely with the idea of a temporary endeavour whose scope might prove unfeasible at later stages of project execution. Hence, should gigaprojects be treated as projects, or due to their innovative nature should they be subjected to a different approach? In treating them one or another way, the stakeholders’ expectations will vary much as will the perceived success or failure of those endeavours. Putting the “burden” of things like project baselines management, project performance monitoring, and so forth to an endeavour that has never been done nor achieved before, and that cannot be even proved to be feasible, might be a sure cause of continuous disappointment and trouble. On the other side, dealing with large amounts of funds without the framework of a project management standard for extended development life cycles might be considered suicidal. This debate is to be addressed before authorizing the project, or the discussion will trigger at any occasion, generating noise and friction—particularly when project performance is repetitively judged low. Megaprojects are unique ventures in the way they were agreed upon, at a once-in-a-lifetime moment, by an unrepeatable mixture of people, moods, and global political equilibrium. Any discussion that might affect that very rare and unique conjunction of factors might lead to project agreement fading away. Most often, gigaprojects will decide to embark on a project framework and deal with issues related to feasibility on the way. Other times, the project scope might be well fitted within a project management framework, while some related R&D programmes are set up to run in parallel, dealing with some feasibility challenges, as is mostly the case for ITER.

As it has been stated, megaprojects would require by defect an extensive planning phase without the pressure for concrete results—start of construction or procurement activities. This sacred period of time will be worth the effort in order to settle and stabilize a special-purpose entity for its governance, to complete preliminary designs of all subsystems to at least prove feasibility (i.e., that at least one solution exists to all project requirements, or make the needed scope changes, as well as agree to a robust set of project management plans). Reiterative patching efforts later in the project execution might prove a nightmare.

As already commented, a key cornerstone for any megaproject is a large foundational and supportive network of stakeholders, well rooted in society. Project sponsors might be for most megaprojects temporary agents related to roles such as politicians that once were in power, deciding to proceed on an unusual collaboration effort. Their successors might not have inherited the same will, shared vision, or context. Without fully engaged project sponsors as was the case with the original dreamers, and without a large retaining wall founded on complete cost-benefit analysis kept in tension by networks of societal stakeholders, the megaproject might need to hold its breath for a fatally long time.


Overall, a big gap of key data might be regularly overlooked when analysing projects like ITER, consistently exarcebating time and budget deviations, as well as disregarding societal benefits that cannot be easily accounted for or were not initially put into the project business case equation.

As Michael Roberts reported5: “President Reagan wanted this to happen because he saw the potential positive impact of American and Soviet engineers living and working together for some period of time. That is a good reminder that ITER—and many other similar megaprojects—is a dual experiment: it's not just science and physics, but also an experiment in international collaboration” (Degitz, 2015).

What is the value of assuring international collaboration among competing and confronted nations? What is the value of peace? The value of many of these gigachallenges could be in the travelling as much as the destination. Keeping cooperation between otherwise antagonized powers might be contemplated as high social revenue, no matter what the expected value, once it starts to operate (in the most extreme case, even if not a single day of operation would occur). And those values, usually categorized as intangible, and immediately forgotten, have to be considered when addressing the value of project outcome versus the cost of project execution. These category of projects are not just giant investment efforts in pursuit of enormous challenges, they are indeed projects targeted at changing societal paradigms. The risks associated with gigaproject failure, hence, are related to the risks of societal advancement postponement. So critical is the link.

If, for instance, the cost of refurbishment of the House of Lords in London is estimated to be in the order of €2 billion—a beautiful edifice but without society paradigm change—and the cost of Sochi Olympics was €51 billion, with a related value of collaboration and peaceful partnership for a few weeks, what should be the scale factor to apply for a megaproject that could solve humankind's energy supply forever? Taking into account just the population of the participating countries, some five Euro per capita would be needed for the entire duration of a project like ITER. Five Euro per citizen to make possible a source of energy that could assure unlimited and continuous supply. Hence, an energy source that could expedite the path for developing and underveloped countries to cover their will to progress, assuring this basic demand, in addition to avoiding climate change.

If the cost-benefit analyses are normally produced to select a project, no interest seems to exist in revisiting them after project authorisation, penalizing the strength and resilience of any project against the issues appearing during its execution. For the case of megaprojects, this could be key to survival, when their unique nature requires us to contemplate the big picture rather than the figures, no matter how dissapointing they can be.

A well founded cost-benefit analysis, together with a broad base of knowledgeable stakeholders might keep apart the fears that will arise in these kind of complex endeavours, attenuating recurrent bad performance with the major societal benefit. In the case of the ITER project, this is nothing less than the improvement of planet's wealth. This approach would give strong reasons and motivations to sponsors and direct internal stakeholders to keep on supporting, no matter how many decades the project extends. Newtonian mechanics would apply here: the inertia of these well-routed megaprojects would keep them moving towards their target unless a powerful reason would act, other disruptions being just negligeable in their trajectory.



Javier Serrano, PhD Eng., M Eng., B Eng., PMP, and ISO 9001 QA Auditor, has 19 years of experience in high-technology, complex projects management within international agencies and project organisations, such as the European Space Agency or the European Agency for Development of Fusion Energy. He has lived and worked in Germany, Italy, France, Scotland, French Guyana, and Spain, and had the professional fortune of being part of the project teams for unique and singular challenges like the largest telescope on Earth, the VEGA Space Launcher, and the ITER Fusion Reactor. He is the author of two books on the shaping forces of science and technology in current and future society's paradigms, futures studies and technological progress’ impacts.


img     | img    [email protected]

Brookes, N. (2015). Delivering European megaprojects: A guide for policy makers and practitioners. COST. Cooperation in Science and Technology. University of Leeds.

Degitz, L. (16 November 2015). Michael Roberts: “We had a common objective to make fusion a reality.” Retrieved from

Flyvbjerg, B. (2014). (2014). What you should know about megaprojects and why: An overview. Project Management Journal, 45(2), 6–19.

Project Management Institute. (2013). A guide to the project management body of knowledge (PMBOK®guide) – Fifth edition. Newtown Square, PA: Author.


1 The size and frequency of megaprojects would have been increased, while performance in megaproject management would have been consistently poor and without improvement for decades (Flyvbjerg, 2014).

2 Megaprojects break when reality imposes overly optimistic, biased, or fantasy expectations, and then huge effort is put into “fixing” it with high cost and schedule impacts.

3 Over budget, over time, over and over again.

4 The “one-billion” rule establish that there is no practical possibility to cancel a megaproject after the first billion (short-scale billion) has been spent or it will ruin the credibility of the sponsors.

5 M. Roberts was the US contact person for ITER and the lead US staff person for the many bilateral and multilateral collaborative fusion activities that underpinned the ITER activities

© 2016, Javier Serrano Martínez
Originally published as part of the 2016 PMI® Global Congress Proceedings – Barcelona, Spain



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