“With each passing decade, this record-breaking monument to big international science looks less and less like a cathedral—and more like a mausoleum.” — Scientific American
The 35-nation International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) project, advertised as “the way to new energy,” has hit another snag. “The world’s biggest fusion experiment,” Bloomberg reported, “faces new delays and potentially billions of dollars in extra costs after defective pieces and broken supply chains disrupted the reactor’s construction in southern France.”
It was bad news at the 32nd annual meeting of the ITER, with a bland press release describing activity but little else. “Council Members reaffirmed their strong belief in the value of the ITER mission and resolved to work together to find timely solutions to facilitate ITER’s success.”
The week before the meeting, Scientific American exposed problems in the article, “World’s Largest Fusion Project Is in Big Trouble, New Documents Reveal.” The article by veteran science writer (and mathematician) Charles Seife, based on internal ITER documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed this year, reported.
ITER is on the verge of a record-setting disaster as accumulated schedule slips and budget overruns threaten to make it the most delayed—and most cost-inflated—science project in history.
Documents prepared for a ITER council meeting last year, Seife wrote, showed
at the time, the project was bracing for a three-year delay—a doubling of internal estimates prepared just six months earlier. And in the year since those documents were written, the already grim news out of ITER has unfortunately only gotten worse. Yet no one within the ITER Organization has been able to provide estimates of the additional delays, much less the extra expenses expected to result from them. Nor has anyone at the U.S. Department of Energy, which is in charge of the nation’s contributions to ITER, been able to do so. When contacted for this story, DOE officials did not respond to any questions by the time of publication.
ITER (Latin for “the path”) issued an intentionally bland news release June 22, following the meeting of its governing council at the headquarters in St Paul-Lez-Durance. Bloomberg parsed the press statement and focused on its statement that the council “requested the Director-General to continue moving forward expeditiously with preparation of the updated project baseline proposal for review and approval in 2024,” The review and approval of the baseline for the Tokamak magnetic confinement project was originally scheduled for 2023, Bloomberg noted.
ITER had its beginning in 1978 as a proposal for an international program to develop a Tokomak fusion project. While the project moved forward with little attention beyond technical circles, it burst upon the public scene during the 1985 Geneva summit between U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet Union General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev.
In Geneva, the two major world leaders agreed to cooperate on fusion R&D, issuing a statement that said that “the potential importance of the work aimed at utilizing controlled thermonuclear fusion for peaceful purposes and, in this connection, advocated the widest practicable development of international cooperation in obtaining this source of energy, which is essentially inexhaustible, for the benefit of all mankind.” Reagan then touted the collaboration in a joint session of the U.S. Congress.
The U.S. then had an on-again, off-again relationship with the project as it evolved toward what became ITER. The U.S. pulled out of the planning in 1998, complaining that the projected $10 billion cost was excessive. When the planners scaled back to effort to $5 billion in 2002, the U.S. rejoined.
Officially launched in 2006, ITER is funded and run by seven member parties: China, the European Union, India, Japan, Russia, South Korea and the United States. The United Kingdom participates through EU‘s Fusion for Energy (F4E), Switzerland participates through Euratom and F4E, and the project has cooperation agreements with Australia, Canada, Kazakhstan and Thailand. Europe provides about 45% of the ITER funding.
ITER was originally funded at $6 billion, with an estimated date for fusion demonstration of 10 years. The current official cost estimate is $22 billion, although several unofficial estimates are in the $30-$45 billion range. The current operational estimate is 2025, although that figure appears to be fantasy.
According to the documents Seife obtained, ITER in November 2021 was already looking at a 17-month delay. “By the time of the June 2022 ITER Council meeting,” he wrote, “the number had doubled to roughly 35 months of delays—enough to easily add billions of dollars to ITER’s already bloated budget. But this timeline didn’t reflect other events bound to introduce even more delays.”
The project faces supply chain delays, faulty thermal shields, and manufacturing flaws that are out of specifications, according to Laban Coblentz, ITER’s communications chief.
The project also faces regulatory problems with the French Nuclear Safety Authority, which ordered ITER to stop assembling the fusion reactor in January 2022, raising doubts about the adequacy of the radiation shielding designed to protect workers. In its understated press release following the council meeting, ITER said updating the timeline will require “Close and effective engagement with the French regulator, Autorité de sûreté nucléaire (ASN), regarding their questions related to the machine assembly ‘hold point,’ and ensuring mutual alignment on the way forward.”
In his Scientific American article, Seife suggested that ITER has come to resemble a Gothic cathedral: “a beautiful but immensely complex structure that we pray will help us find salvation from our energy and climate woes.” Then he rejected that metaphor, concluding, “With each passing decade, this record-breaking monument to big international science looks less and less like a cathedral—and more like a mausoleum.”
 The boiler-plate mission is as follows:
ITER—designed to demonstrate the scientific and technological feasibility of fusion power—will be
the world’s largest experimental fusion facility. Fusion is the process that powers the Sun and the stars:
when light atomic nuclei fuse together to form heavier ones, a large amount of energy is released.
Fusion research is aimed at developing a safe, abundant and environmentally responsible energy source.
ITER is also a first-of-a-kind global collaboration. Europe is contributing almost half of the costs of its
construction, while the other six Members to this joint international venture (China, India, Japan, the
Republic of Korea, the Russian Federation and the United States), are contributing equally to the rest.
The ITER Project is under construction in Saint-Paul-lez-Durance, in the south of France.