Nuclear Fusion: ITER’s First Plasma Now Scheduled for 2034

Initially slated for 2025, the first plasma generations from ITER have been postponed. According to the new roadmap submitted to the council, it will now be at least 2034 before the reactor begins its initial fusion operations.

This updated timeline was eagerly anticipated. During a press conference held on Wednesday, July 3, Pietro Barabaschi, Director-General of the ITER Organization, presented the revised schedule for ITER, which was approved by the council during its 34th meeting at the end of June. ITER is a nuclear fusion research project that involves over 35 countries and is based in Cadarache, France. Its goal is to demonstrate the feasibility and sustainability of magnetic fusion operations using deutrium-tritium in a tokamak, which is ten times larger than any currently existing tokamaks.

The project’s previous schedule, set in 2016, predicted the first plasma by 2025 (with full plasma by 2032). By 2020, given the challenges encountered, it was evident that these deadlines would not be met. Several events have disrupted the project’s progress, including the slowdown in activities caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, technical issues, and defects in received components which led to significant delays. Additionally, the organization admits to having “planned some aspects of manufacturing and assembly too optimistically.”

A More Realistic Schedule

Therefore, the new roadmap is not just a revision of the old one; it has been thoughtfully designed to incorporate lessons learned from previous delays. Further studies will also be conducted over the next several years to solidify this plan.

  • The new schedule now aims to begin the first “research operations” by 2034, following the completion of the tokamak construction. The initial plasmas will be exclusively based on deuterium.
  • Subsequently, the reactor’s operation at full magnetic energy potential is expected only by 2036.
  • The operations involving deuterium-tritium fusion are anticipated by 2039.

An additional update includes the use of Tungsten instead of Beryllium for the walls facing the plasma, due to its higher melting temperature.

These delays are expected to cost an additional 5 billion euros, pending validation by the ITER council members. Nevertheless, there is a strong consensus among the members in favor of the new schedule. According to Pietro Barabaschi, “there is very strong support from all members for this project.” He also noted, “We are continuously challenged to cut costs and seek ways to improve our efficiency. Consequently, we are currently restructuring the project internally to optimize our operational efficiency.”

Not far from ITER, nuclear fusion is still making significant progress. The CEA’s WEST tokamak recently set a new record by maintaining plasma at approximately 50 million degrees Celsius for six minutes.

By François Terminet (Sfen)

Image : ITER Organization site in Cadarache, Source : ITER Organization