MOSCOW. (Yury Zaitsev for RIA Novosti) - On November 21, 2006, Russia, South Korea, China, Japan, India, the European Union and the United States signed an agreement on building the world's first International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER).
The overall cost of the project is 13 billion Euros. The "small Sun" (as the reactor is referred to) will be sited in Cadarache near Marseilles. Russia will finance part of the project and contribute its technologies and know-how.
Unlike conventional nuclear power plant reactors utilizing the nuclear radioactive decay principle, i.e. fission of heavy elements, the ITER unit generates power through thermonuclear fusion, that is, when two light atomic nuclei fuse together to form heavier ones.
Scientists want to imitate physical processes inside the Sun and to use them for building commercial power units.
Chemically inert helium is created through the fusion of hydrogen isotopes -deuterium and tritium - inside the Sun. This unique process generates hundreds of times more energy than uranium-powered nuclear reactors.
The Earth has a virtually unlimited amount of fuel for future thermonuclear reactors. Both deuterium and tritium can be obtained from water; this process is much simpler, safer and cheaper than the conventional nuclear fuel cycle. Moreover, "clean" thermonuclear reactors will not damage the environment even in case of major accidents and can therefore be built in densely populated areas.
The principles of thermonuclear fusion were formulated over 50 years ago. However, scientists faced enormous problems as they tried to ignite and control thermonuclear plasma. Lev Artsimovich, member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, said thermonuclear fusion had become the most formidable science and engineering challenge of the 20th century.
But at that time scientists failed to build a thermonuclear reactor, and interest in this problem gradually began to wane after a period of unsuccessful attempts.
In the last decades works on this problem have resumed all over the world and international cooperation in this sphere has grown stronger because it is very important to harness controlled thermonuclear fusion.
Work on the first experimental TOKAMAK (Toroidal Chamber in Magnetic Coils) reactor began in 1988 on the Soviet Union's initiative.
The reactor's basic principle of operation is as follows. A powerful electric current flows through toroidal-chamber plasma, and its magnetic field merges with that of the toroidal solenoid to create the required magnetic field needed to maintain a well-balanced and insulated plasma configuration.
The Soviet Union and later Russia, the United States, the EU and Japan established an agency that promptly designed the TOKAMAK reactor. This project largely owed its success to Russian research involving pre-nuclear TOKAMAK reactors, which studied related problems and were used to test different engineering solutions, namely, large-scale superconducting magnetic systems and powerful high-frequency units for creating and maintaining stable reactor plasma.
Russia's Federal Nuclear Power Agency (Rosatom) is proud to say that Russian scientists were the first to develop TOKAMAK systems for the ITER project.
The Cadarache reactor is expected to prove that thermonuclear power plants are feasible. If successful, it will serve as a basis for more powerful and advanced units for completely solving mankind's energy problems. However, this goal cannot be achieved overnight. Vladimir Fortov, Member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, said thermonuclear power will be harnessed completely only by 2040.
Yevgeny Velikhov, member of the Russian Academy of Sciences and President of the Kurchatov Institute Russian Research Center, said Japan, which faces huge energy shortages and which has no hydrocarbon deposits, would build the first commercial thermonuclear power plant in 2030. "We hope that thermonuclear fusion will account for a considerable share of global energy output by the middle of the 21st century," Velikhov said.
Russia's involvement in the ITER project is the only chance to preserve its potential in the most advanced science-and-engineering spheres. Moscow has completely fulfilled its R&D commitments. Although the project's technical aspects have been implemented, scientists will continue to study the physics of thermonuclear plasma for a long time to come.
An ad hoc commission comprising EU government advisers and many authoritative international experts said the controlled thermonuclear fusion project is proceeding too slowly against the backdrop of major energy shortages facing humankind, and all the countries involved must step up joint efforts in this sphere.
Yury Zaitsev is an expert at the Russian Academy of Engineering Sciences.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and may not necessarily represent the opinions of the editorial board.