Scientists question country's involvement in Iter, the international fusion project


By Hepeng Jia/Beijing, China

Following the establishment of a national centre for China’s involvement in Iter, the international fusion project, some scientists are still questioning the country’s participation in the scheme.

On 10 October, the Centre for China’s International Nuclear Fusion Energy Plan was launched - to be headed by former vice-minister for science, Cheng Jinpei. The centre will oversee China’s 10 billion yuan ($1.4 billion) input to the €10 billion ($12.4 billion) Iter project, which aims to demonstrate the scientific and technical feasibility of fusion power.

The centre comes four years after a group of top Chinese scientists filed an unsuccessful petition to policymakers protesting against China’s involvement in Iter. He Zuoxiu, a leading physicist at the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) and one of 40 CAS members to file the petition, told Chemistry World: ’Since China’s joining Iter has been ratified by the National People’s Congress (China’s legislature), the opposition cannot stop it now, but we hope our protest will remind policymakers to make more rational decisions.’

"Is it worthwhile to pour 10 billion yuan into a project that may be impossible?" - He Zuoxiu, Chinese Academy of Sciences

Future energy

Iter started in 1985, when the US, the EU, Japan, and the then Soviet Union formed a collaboration to demonstrate fusion as a viable energy source. After the US pulled out, China joined negotiations in late 2002, along with a returning US. ’China’s joining Iter was a result of the country’s aim to meet its basic energy demands,’ says Huo Yuping of Zhengzhou University, who is the former chief scientist of China’s experts’ steering committee for Iter. He adds that the move was also intended to narrow the gap between China and the world’s leading fusion researchers, and to cultivate national science and engineering talent.

In 2006 China, Japan, the EU, India, South Korea, Russia and the US signed a formal agreement to develop Iter, a tokamak facility which will use toroidal magnetic fields to sustain a plasma at 100 million Celsius, and allow hydrogen isotopes to fuse for long enough to demonstrate fusion as a viable energy source. The plan is the second largest international science cooperation project after the International Space Station, and is now expected to begin operation in Cadarache, France, in 2018. 

Experimental advanced superconducting tokamak (East), Hefei

The Experimental advanced superconducting tokamak (East), at Hefei’s CAS Institute of Plasma Physics, was completed in 2007

Just as in the US, doubts over China’s participation in Iter have been expressed ever since the country got involved. China originally agreed to input 10 billion yuan, some $1.4 billion or 10 per cent of the total projected budget - now reduced to 9 per cent after India’s involvement. ’Our major concern is the cost. Is it worthwhile to pour 10 billion yuan into a mission that may be impossible?’ He says.

China had already launched studies into fusion research before joining Iter. In 2007, the CAS’s Institute of Plasma Physics (IPP) in Hefei finished building the Experimental advanced superconducting tokamak (East), to begin Iter testing. But He points out that the completion of East can’t guarantee Iter will work. ’The cost for fusion power -- expected to be more than 10 times that produced by current nuclear power stations -- will be too expensive for commercialisation,’ He adds.

Hao Bailin, former director of CAS Institute of Theoretical Physics, says the cost for China to join ITER is several times what the country is spending on its own plasma physics research, hinting that China might be better served by performing its own smaller fusion studies.

"How China can benefit from Iter relies on how well the Chinese programme is regulated" - Huo Yuping, Zhengzhou University

Fusion fans 

But supporters of China’s involvement in Iter, like Huo, say its cost is not a reliable guide to the expense of future commercial fusion power. And 80 per cent of China’s Iter contribution will be made in the form of scientific expertise and Chinese-made equipment, with the rest in the form of cash spread over 10 years - not prohibitively expensive. 

Policymakers also favour China’s involvement in Iter. Insiders say that in order to appease opposing CAS members, Iter involvement has not been branded as a key national research programme. 

Duan Yibing, a policy researcher at CAS’s Institute for Policy and Management, agrees there could be a risk in implementing large-scale fusion research. ’But if you think of Iter as a scientific mission, risks will always be there,’ Duan points out. The key is to make participation in China’s Iter programme, and information arising from it, open to all of the country’s science community, so that the money spent can boost China’s scientific progress and technical knowledge, he adds. ’Iter is a long, huge research project. Now we are just seeing the beginning,’ says Huo. ’How China can benefit from it relies on how well the Chinese programme is regulated.’

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