The Iter fusion demonstration project has suffered another funding blow, while a milestone was reached in another potential route to fusion power in the USA.

After debating the budget of the European Union, the host and therefore biggest single donor to Iter, the budget committee voted to cut the project’s proposed 2011 budget from €352 million ($487 million) to €305 million ($422 million).

The move follows intensive discussions in recent months after it was discovered that there was a shortfall in EU budget for the program of approximately €1.4 billion ($1.75 billion) for the construction of the reactor over the 2012–3 period. This hole was meant to be plugged via a reallocation of funds from the seventh framework program, which would have greatly diminished that available for other energy related projects.

Ostensibly, the reason for the EU cuts is that start of Iter construction has been pushed back to 2012, meaning that it no longer requires all of its initial allowance. First plasma is now slated for 2019.

Iter is the crucial ’next-step’ experimental tokamak, designed to overcome nearly all of the technical roadblocks currently limiting magnetic fusion energy research and development. It is intended to consistently demonstrate greater than break-even energy production over long periods of time, and will pave the way for a the construction of a demonstration magnetic fusion power plant (Demo) that will provide power to the grid.

The true costs of Iter are difficult to determine because of the nature of the funding arrangements. Each of the contracting parties (China, India, Japan, Russia, South Korea, the USA and the EU) are expected to provide in-kind contributions rather than money, with details such as the amount left up to the individual party to disclose. Nevertheless, a June report from EU administering body Fusion for Energy put the EU’s contribution to construction at approximately €6.6 billion ($8.4 billion). This represents more than a doubling of costs (for the EU at least) from a 2001 estimate, with a large fraction of the now costs due in 2012–3.

Iter leadership has been sorely pressed by the cost blowout. In July this year a meeting of the Iter council unanimously approved the project’s baseline — its overall schedule and cost. This followed on from a council meeting in June in which no agreement regarding costs could be reached.

Iter director general Osamu Mtojima, who took over from Kaname Ikeda at the July meeting, has vowed to reduce the overall costs of the project through “extensive efforts to simplify procedures and to reduce the overall cost of the project.”

Milestone in laser inertial fusion

Meanwhile, researchers at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory have celebrated a milestone in another potential route to nuclear fusion power explored through the new National Ignition Facility. A test was successfully conducted in which 192 lasers delivered 1 megajoule (a milestone figure) to a deuterium-tritium fuel capsule. The test demonstrated the integration of all the various aspects of the inertial fusion machine required for fusion itself to take place.

”From both a system integration and from a physics point of view, this experiment was outstanding,” said Ed Moses, director of the National Ignition Facility. ”This is a great moment in the 50-year history of inertial confinement fusion…”

There is something of a technological race on between magnetic fusion and inertial fusion to see which will be first to produce a commercially viable energy source. The success of one could well spell the death of the other.

Magnetic fusion has long been considered the most promising technology and was first demonstrated many decades ago. However problems with the international development framework continue to plague its schedule. The Iter concept was originally floated in 1985 with the aim of bringing together international partners. By contrast, progress in laser inertial fusion progress has been rapid in recent years. Emphasis has been paced on accelerating the development schedule, aiming to realize a demonstration plant on a similar timescale to magnetic fusion.

Currently over 1000 fusion experts are meeting in Korea this week as part of the 23rd biennial Fusion Energy Conference. Organised by the IAEA and hosted by Korea’s National Fusion Research Institute, the conference is the biggest ever.

Speaking at the event, IAEA deputy director general Yury Sokolov outlined the case for all kinds of fusion: ”There is no debate that fusion has the potential to produce a significant amount of energy for thousands of years. The challenge is how to make the process practical, economical, reliable and sustainable. All current fusion research is aiming to achieve that goal. And by achieving it, we will not only have energy, we will gain new structural materials, superconductors, reliable robots, new methods and tools for control and analysis, and so on”.

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