|Russia will help build the world’s
first thermonuclear reactor
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
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
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
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
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