Fusion and fission: a common future

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Published on 15/08/2020

Chronicles of the other nuclear – Volume 2

“And when He was finished, and the world reactor fleet was purring along, the Human Genius decided to rest, and He created the summer holiday.“

Summer’s over. It’s back to school/work time !

It’s the time to assume our responsibilities, to stick together and get cracking! Welcome back to everyone, we wish you a good restart.

Indeed, in this post-summer of 2020, when enthusiasm and newfound energy are the order of the day, we supporters of nuclear energy are facing several items of bad news (and a few good ones like the 470 million€ dedicated to nuclear energy in the French economic stimulus plan, or the first design approval of a new type of reactor, a Small Modular Reactor, by US safety authorities).

These news items don’t come as a surprise, they aren’t even the worst we’ve ever seen, but they still have two characteristics that make them ever more serious: 1. they come on top of the previous ones and precede the next ones, and 2. we are getting used to it.

We can point to the realization that the 2019-2022 period will have seen 26 premature reactor closures within the space of only 3 years, or the exclusion of nuclear from the European Commission’s “green” recovery budget, or further delays in Brazil’s 35-year-old Angra-3 project, or Hitachi’s decision to abandon the Wylfa new reactor build project in Wales, or more delays in the startup schedules of Europe’s two flagship EPRs, Flamanville-3 and Olkiluoto-3. The production of units 1 and 2 at Fessenheim, which are still shut and will remain shut, was quickly replaced by predominantly fossil capacity in both France and Germany. The market for nuclear goods and services is slow to recover. Like all front-line soldiers, small businesses and mid-caps in the sector – the industrial fabric that holds everything together – are also the first to fall. SMRs are making history – but only in America. In France, the Astrid advanced-reactor project was terminated and we haven’t heard of any sequel. Finally, nuclear energy, already under serious threat from the European taxonomy project, will also not have access to the 750 billion € European recovery package that will almost double the European budget.

Ah, but the front-row darling is still there : fusion! ITER. Or… Is it really?

Up to now, the slogan has been: “ITER is not nuclear power, it is scientific research”.

Except that Greenpeace – with whose name Voices are now associated for life has just renewed its attacks on the project. Except that, although ITER has lost “only” 7.5% of its budget from the EU, the European research program Eurofusion will suffer a 20% reduction while the overall research envelope for everyone else has been re-evaluated upwards.

Yet just because ITER, too, is ultimately part of the “family” does not mean that the project should be the target of unjustified sanctions on its operations.

Whether in today’s industry or in future technology, whether small business or large customer, whether citizens in their own name or players in the sector, anywhere and everywhere on the planet, all of us who favor generation of nuclear electricity are concerned and must react. Not “take stock of the problem”. No. React.

Since we Voices don’t like to stay negative for too long, we invite you to join us at the 2020 edition of Stand Up for Nuclear at the location nearest you – find it here – and/or at the French edition which we are organizing on September 27 in Paris!

A signal from citizens is essential if we want to see favorable political or industrial decisions be made. The decision is ours. What are we going to do?

Since we are collectively attacked, we will provide a collective response.

Back to work? It’s time to assume our responsibilities, to stick together and get cracking!

Thank you, Greg, for showing us the way.

For the Voices

Chronicles of the other nuclear – Volume 2

Fusion and fission : a common future

by Greg De Temmerman, scientific coordinator at ITER

As France continued its slow recovery, just before the summer break two major events in the nuclear field occurred within the space of a month:

  • on May 26, the assembly phase of the ITER fusion chamber began;
  • on June 30, the second reactor unit at the Fessenheim plant was shut down.

One more step towards mastering nuclear fusion on the one hand, the elimination of 900 MW (1,800 MW if we include the first reactor, shut down in February 2020) of dispatchable low-carbon electricity on the other. Without a doubt a fluke of the calendar, this parallel is still striking if one considers the present, but especially the future, ties between these two nuclear sectors.

The future: a decisive step taken by the ITER project

The installation on May 26 of the base of the ITER cryostat within the bioshield, which is designed to absorb most of the residual neutron radiation emanating from the plasma, marks the start of the assembly of the tokamak, the heart of the ITER project, in which a mixture of hydrogen isotopes (deuterium and tritium) will be confined in a magnetic cage and heated to 150 million degrees to induce fusion reactions.

A step that is all the more important since the 1,250-tonne base of the cryostat is the most massive element of the tokamak.

The cryostat is a stainless-steel vacuum chamber, measuring approximately 30 m in diameter and as much in height, which ensures thermal insulation of the magnetic coils. The latter must be kept at a temperature of -269° C, using liquid helium, in order to be superconducting, that is, to present no resistance to electric current.

Installation of the base of the cryostat in the bioshield. With a weight of 1,250 t, the base of the cryostat is the most massive part of ITER.

The cryostat can be seen as a giant thermos, with the vacuum in the cryostat serving as a thermal insulator. It consists of a base, just installed, two cylindrical sections, and a lid and will contain the entire tokamak.The cryostat has 280 penetrations of different sizes (up to 4 m wide) allowing the passage of pipework (for water, liquid helium, gas), heating systems, diagnostics, etc.

The assembly will last approximately 4 years, over which will be delivered, in turn, the major components manufactured by the 7 partner countries of the project.

The first toroidal coils, which will create the main magnetic field, have arrived. There are 18 of them, each measuring 16 m high and 9 m wide and weighing around 350 tonnes – the weight of a Boeing 747 at takeoff.

ITER will use 18 toroidal coils to create the main magnetic field. Each coil measures 16 m x 9 m and weighs 350 t

The first poloidal coil, made in China, with a diameter of 10 m and a weight of 400 tonnes, is on site and will be the first to be installed. The first element of the vacuum vessel – made up of 9 sectors, 4 of which are manufactured in Korea and 5 in Europe – arrived in Cadarache on August 7. It announces the start of construction of a critical component: the vacuum vessel is the first containment barrier, and must withstand enormous stresses during potential disruptions, while making it possible to reach the very high vacuum necessary for obtaining a plasma.

The vacuum vessel is made up of 9 sectors. The first complete sector arrived on site in August 2020.

The present: a necessary link between fusion and fission

Fusion and fission are two processes by which the energy of atomic nuclei is converted into usable energy – usually electricity, sometimes heat. This energy comes from the neutrons emitted during the process which deposit their energy in a liquid coolant.

Fusion is at the research stage and ITER’s goal is to demonstrate that it is possible to generate more energy from fusion reactions than is needed to heat plasma.

Fission technology is deploying third-generation reactors and is developing a fourth generation that will allow much better fuel use by breeding (transformation of fertile uranium into fissile plutonium) and therefore a significant increase in usable uranium resources, while considerably reducing the amount of final waste.

The links between these two worlds are still tenuous but are developing with the construction of ITER.

Being the first fusion installation recognized as a Basic Nuclear Installation in France, ITER is regulated by nuclear safety authority ASN, which must keep its expertise in the field active. Many companies involved in ITER, as well as many employees and subcontractors, have previous experience in the nuclear industry.

The Hot Cell Complex, for example, a 200,000-m3 complex where processing, repair/overhaul, analyses and elimination of activated components will be carried out, is being developed with the collaboration of experts and companies from the current nuclear industry. Systems for remote handling or analysis of activated materials/components are two other examples of strong synergy between the two fields. The example of (third-generation) EPR reactor construction projects shows the difficulty in restarting the reactor construction industry after a long hiatus in construction of new units. The future construction of fusion reactors can only benefit from maintaining this expertise in management and construction of large nuclear projects.

The treatment, repair, overhaul, analysis and elimination of components activated by neutron exposure will be carried out in the Hot Cell, a 200,00-m3 5-story building that will be located not far from the Tokamak Complex

Beyond ITER, the pre-conceptual design of DEMO, the European demonstrator, was recently entrusted to a recognized nuclear engineering company. In England, the launch of the STEP fusion reactor program is accompanied by efforts to benefit from the expertise acquired in the field of fission.

Beyond these practical and implementation aspects, fission and fusion share the same vision of energy: that of using a fuel with very high energy density in large-capacity centralized generating units designed to be dispatchable.

Nuclear power is one of the energy sources with the highest power densities, with 200-1,000 watts/m2 while wind power and solar photovoltaic have values ​​of the order of 1 to 10-20 W/m2, respectively. This has impacts on land use. Just imagine that replacement of the Fessenheim nuclear plant by wind power would require an area of ​​around 1,800 km2. By way of comparison, the reservoir of the Three Gorges dam in China has an area of ​​1,550 km2, and ​the city of Tokyo covers 2,100 km2. The area between two wind turbines remains partially usable for other activities, but the footprint remains.

With the same characteristic of density, and in view of its development timescale, fusion will be able to be deployed only within the kind of centralized grid and supply system we know today.

Fusion and fission therefore share a common future.

Maintaining, and even developing, nuclear power is an asset in the fight against global warming – but an asset that suffers from low social acceptability, in particular in France. Fusion represents the vision of a possible future for mankind and for the planet. And for nuclear power as well. A future which, after the stop to France’s ASTRID fourth-generation reactor development program, sometimes seems quite uncertain.

Crédit photos : ITER.org

Read the Chronicle N°1 : ” Fusion, where are we now? ”