Most Influential Projects 2020

34 International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor


For boldly exploring next-gen nuclear energy

Imagine a future of nearly limitless, clean, safe energy with no emissions or toxic waste. That’s what nuclear fusion—the process that fuels the sun and stars—could do for humanity, and what the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) project team is out to deliver. The US$25 billion collaboration among 35 nations, led by the European Union, India, Japan, China, Russia, South Korea and the United States, reached a major milestone in April when two key components for a prototype fusion reactor arrived at the project headquarters in France.

“ITER is an amazing thing. Extremely high energy density, environmentally friendly and with disposable products that are managed in one human lifetime,” says Colette Ricketts, deputy head, project control office, ITER, Saint-Paul-Lès Durance, France. If successful, the reactor, which runs on hydrogen isotopes derived from abundant resources (seawater and lithium), will deliver zero-carbon energy, without the intense radioactivity, meltdown risks or hazardous waste that come with conventional nuclear fission. “It’s almost too good to be true,” Ricketts notes.

The reactor’s massive 360-metric ton toroidal field coils are among the most critical components. Getting the first two of 18 on-site—one from a workshop in Italy, the other making an ocean voyage from Japan—required exhaustive and extraordinary efforts, coordinating among manufacturers, logistical teams, government stakeholders and ITER staff.

The team relied on statistical predictions to identify “the opportunity side of risk,” Ricketts says, partnering with logistics company Daher to deploy 360-degree 3D scanning of the topography of the transport route to create an animated, full-scale replica of the equipment’s journey. The process helped identify obstacles as basic as tree branches and as complex as roadway configurations, limiting mitigation work and keeping costs to a minimum.

“At the end of the day we are using taxpayers’ money, so it’s our responsibility to make sure we use as little of it as possible,” Ricketts says.

The superconducting magnetic coils were shipped flat, rather than at their normal 45-degree angle, to limit the profile, but even so required a 342-wheel trailer. The project team also had to widen a section of highway and build a custom bridge to accommodate the transport. Dry-run testing with French authorities and local community stakeholders helped identify road furniture, such as signs and light posts, that would need to be temporarily removed.

A little before 2 in the morning of 17 April, the first toroidal field coil arrived on-site. “We assume no contingency, which for most project managers is crazy, right? What do you mean no contingency on a first-of-its-kind project?” Ricketts says. “But what we’ve realized, if we work this way, everybody is pushing to meet the plan.”

With the first two coils delivered, the ITER project reached 69 percent completion. If all continues smoothly, the prototype reactor is slated to begin generating full-power fusion by 2035.

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Related Sponsors and Organizations

  • Daher
  • Government of China
  • Government of India
  • Government of Japan
  • Government of Russia
  • Government of South Korea
  • Government of the European Union
  • Government of the United States