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ITER fusion project faces more delays

location of iterThe world will have to wait even longer to find out whether nuclear fusion will be a viable alternative energy source, it seems. Central experiments for the multibillion-dollar, yet-unbuilt International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), probably won't get underway until 2026, according to an Agence-France Presse (AFP) report, five years later than recent timelines indicated.

The ITER team has broken ground for the test site in Cadarache, France (near Marseille), which will run a smaller reactor "less complete than initially thought," a spokesperson for France's Atomic Energy Commission said in a press conference yesterday.

Even though construction is slated to start this year, plasma-driven experiments won't get going until 2018—and those would be lighter than planned, literally (using hydrogen rather than heavier tritium and deuterium, which will have to wait for 2026). Although fusing hydrogen is easier, the deuterium-tritium reaction has proved to be the most "efficient" in lab experiments (meaning the most energy is released at the lowest temperature), so it's the target combination. Temperatures will still need to be about 270 million degrees Fahrenheit (150 million Celsius) for the reaction to get going.

Fusion—the same process our sun uses to make energy—fuses together atoms using hot plasma, rather than breaking them apart (as in fission) or joining them at room temperature (as in cold fusion). Its proponents hail it as a safer and greener source of energy that would produce little hazardous waste.

Manufacturing for the reactor's nuts and bolts (or at least wires) is already under contract, notes World Nuclear News. A South Korean company has started making some of the 28 tons of niobium-tin wire it will supply for the reactor's magnets. 

ITER is currently backed by seven governments and had an initial price tag of $13.8 billion—which may double by the time it's built, Nature reports. France and the E.U. will pick up half of the tab together, and the other partners (China, India, Japan, Russia, South Korea and the U.S.) will be divvying up the rest. The project, which had its first design more than 20 years ago, seems to be on the cusp of liftoff, but, writes the Principal Deputy Director-General Norbet Holtkamp, "the details of the plan remain to be hammered out."

Listen to a podcast about nuclear fusion.

Map of the ITER location courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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