On November 21, 2006, the seven participants formally agreed to fund the project. The program is anticipated to last for 30 years — 10 for construction, and 20 of operation — and cost approximately US$ 9.3 billion , which would make it one of the most expensive modern technoscientific megaprojects. It will be based in Cadarache, France. It is technically ready to start construction and the first plasma operation is expected in 2018.
ITER is designed to produce approximately 500 MW (500,000,000 watts) of fusion power sustained for up to 1000 seconds (compared to JET's peak of 16 MW for less than a second) by the fusion of about 0.5 g of deuterium/tritium mixture in its approximately 840 m3 reactor chamber. Although ITER is expected to produce (in the form of heat) 5-10 times more energy than the amount consumed to heat up the plasma to fusion temperatures, the generated heat will not be used to generate any electricity.
According to the ITER consortium, fusion power offers the potential of "environmentally benign, widely applicable and essentially inexhaustible electricity, properties that they believe will be needed as world energy demands increase while simultaneously greenhouse gas emissions must be reduced, justifying the expensive research project.
ITER was originally an acronym for International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, but that title was dropped due to the negative popular connotation of "thermonuclear," especially when in conjunction with "experimental". "Iter" also means "journey", "direction" or "way" in Latin, and this double meaning reflects ITER's role in harnessing nuclear fusion as a peaceful power source.
All proto- and mid-life stars radiate enormous amounts of energy generated by fusion processes. Mass for mass, the deuterium-tritium fusion process releases roughly three times as much energy as uranium 235 fission, and millions of times more energy than a chemical reaction such as the burning of coal. It is the goal of a fusion power plant to harness this energy to produce electricity.
The activation energy for fusion is so high because the protons in each nucleus will tend to strongly repel one another, as they each have the same positive charge. A heuristic for estimating reaction rates is that nuclei must be able to get within 100 femtometer (1 × 10−13 meter) of each other, where the nuclei are increasingly likely to undergo quantum tunnelling past the electrostatic barrier and the turning point where the strong nuclear force and the electrostatic force are equally balanced, allowing them to fuse. In ITER, this distance of approach is made possible by high temperatures and magnetic confinement. High temperatures give the nuclei enough energy to overcome their electrostatic repulsion (see Maxwell-Boltzmann distribution). For deuterium and tritium, the optimal reaction rates occur at temperatures on the order of 100,000,000 K. The plasma is heated to a high temperature by ohmic heating (running a current through the plasma). Additional heating is applied using neutral beam injection (which cross magnetic field lines without a net deflection and will not cause a large electromagnetic disruption) and radio frequency (RF) or microwave heating.
At such high temperatures, particles have a vast kinetic energy, and hence velocity. If unconfined, the particles will rapidly escape, taking the energy with them, cooling the plasma to the point where net energy is no longer produced. A successful reactor would need to contain the particles in a small enough volume for a long enough time for much of the plasma to fuse. In ITER and many other magnetic confinement reactors, the plasma, a gas of charged particles, is confined using magnetic fields. A charged particle moving through a magnetic field experiences a force perpendicular to the direction of travel, resulting in centripetal acceleration, thereby confining it to move in a circle.
A solid confinement vessel is also needed, both to shield the magnets and other equipment from high temperatures and energetic photons and particles, and to maintain a near-vacuum for the plasma to populate. The containment vessel is subjected to a barrage of very energetic particles, where electrons, ions, photons, alpha particles, and neutrons constantly bombard it and degrade the structure. The material must be designed to endure this environment so that a powerplant would be economical. Tests of such materials will be carried out both at ITER and at IFMIF (International Fusion Materials Irradiation Facility).
Once fusion has begun, high energy neutrons will radiate from the reactive regions of the plasma, crossing magnetic field lines easily due to charge neutrality (see neutron flux). Since it is the neutrons that receive the majority of the energy, they will be ITER's primary source of energy output. Ideally, alpha particles will expend their energy in the plasma, further heating it.
Beyond the inner wall of the containment vessel one of several test blanket modules will be placed. These are designed to slow and absorb neutrons in a reliable and efficient manner, limiting damage to the rest of the structure, and breeding tritium from lithium and the incoming neutrons for fuel. Energy absorbed from the fast neutrons is extracted and passed into the primary coolant. This heat energy would then be used to power an electricity-generating turbine in a real power plant; however, in ITER this heat is not of scientific interest, and will be extracted and disposed.
ITER began in 1985 as a collaboration between the European Union (through EURATOM), the USA, the then Soviet Union and Japan. Conceptual and engineering design phases led to an acceptable, detailed design in 2001, underpinned by US$650 million worth of research and development by the "ITER Parties" to establish its practical feasibility. These parties (with the Russian Federation replacing the Soviet Union and with the USA opting out of the project in 1999 and returning in 2003) were joined in negotiations on the future construction, operation and decommissioning of ITER by Canada (who then terminated their participation at the end of 2003), the People's Republic of China, and the Republic of Korea. India officially became part of ITER on 6 December 2005. The project is expected to cost about € 5 billion (US$7.6 billion) over its thirty year life .
On 28 June 2005, it was officially announced that ITER will be built in the European Union in Southern France. The negotiations that led to the decision ended in a compromise between the EU and Japan, in that Japan was promised 20 percent of the research staff on the French location of ITER, as well as the head of the administrative body of ITER. In addition, another research facility for the project will be built in Japan, and the European Union has agreed to contribute about 50% of the costs of this institution.
ITER will run in parallel with a materials test facility, the International Fusion Materials Irradiation Facility (IFMIF), which will develop materials suitable for use in the extreme conditions that will be found in future fusion power plants. Both of these will be followed by a demonstration power plant, DEMO, which would generate electricity. DEMO would be the first to produce electric energy for commercial use.
A "fast track" plan to a commercial fusion power plant has been sketched out. This scenario, which assumes that ITER continues to demonstrate that the tokamak line of magnetic confinement is the most promising for power generation, anticipates a full-scale power plant coming on-line in 2050, potentially leading to a large-scale adoption of fusion power over the following thirty years.
The process of selecting a location for ITER was long and drawn out. The most likely sites were Cadarache in Provence-Alpes-Côte-d'Azur, France and Rokkasho, Aomori, Japan. Additionally, Canada announced a bid for the site in Clarington in May 2001, but withdrew from the race in 2003. Spain also offered a site at Vandellòs on 17 April 2002, but the EU decided to concentrate its support solely behind the French site in late November 2003. From this point on, the choice was between France and Japan.
Construction of the ITER complex is planned to begin in 2008, while assembly of the tokamak itself is scheduled to begin in the year 2011.
Canada was previously a full member, but has since pulled out due to a lack of funding from the Federal government. The lack of funding also resulted in Canada withdrawing from its bid for the ITER site in 2003.
It was announced that participants in the ITER will consider Kazakhstan's offer to join the program.
Although Japan's financial contribution as a non-hosting member is 1/11th of the total, the EU agreed to grant it a special status so that Japan will provide for 2/11th of the research staff at Cadarache and be awarded 2/11th of the construction contracts, while the European Union's staff and construction components contributions will be cut from 5/11th to 4/11th.
In December 2007, the United States zeroed funding for ITER in fiscal year 2008.
French environmental groups said the project ITER, was "dangerous", "costly", and "not a job generator". A French association including about 700 anti-nuclear groups, Sortir du nucléaire (Get Out of Nuclear Energy), also claimed that ITER was a hazard because scientists did not yet know how to manipulate the high-energy deuterium and tritium hydrogen isotopes used in the fusion process.
The ITER project confronts numerous technically challenging issues. French physicist Sébastien Balibar, director of research at the CNRS said We say that we will put the sun into a box. The idea is pretty. The problem is, we don't know how to make the box.
A technical concern is that the 14 MeV neutrons produced by the fusion reactions will damage the materials from which the reactor is built. Research is in progress to determine how and/or if reactor walls can be designed to last long enough to make a commercial power plant economically viable in the presence of the intense neutron bombardment. The damage is primarily caused by high energy neutrons knocking atoms out of their normal position in the crystal lattice. A related problem for a future commercial fusion power plant is that the neutron bombardment will induce radioactivity in the reactor itself. Maintaining and decommissioning a commercial reactor may thus be difficult and expensive. Another problem is that superconducting magnets are damaged by neutron fluxes. A new special research facility is planned for this activity IFMIF
Rebecca Harms, Green/EFA member of the European Parliament's Committee on Industry, Research and Energy, said: "In the next 50 years nuclear fusion will neither tackle climate change nor guarantee the security of our energy supply." Arguing that the EU's energy research should be focused elsewhere, she said: "The Green/EFA group demands that these funds be spent instead on energy research that is relevant to the future. A major focus should now be put on renewable sources of energy." French Green party lawmaker Noël Mamère claims that more concrete efforts to fight present-day global warming will be neglected as a result of ITER: "This is not good news for the fight against the greenhouse effect because we're going to put ten billion euros towards a project that has a term of 30-50 years when we're not even sure it will be effective.
A number of fusion researchers working on non-tokamak systems, such as Robert Bussard and Eric Lerner, have been critical of ITER for diverting funding that they believe could be used for their potentially more reasonable and/or cost effective fusion power plant designs. Criticisms levied often revolve around claims of the unwillingness by ITER researchers to face up to potential problems (both technical and economic) due to the dependence of their jobs on the continuation of tokamak research. An informal overview of the last decade of work was presented at the 57th International Astronautical Congress in October 2006.
According to researchers at a demonstration reactor in Japan, a fusion generator should be feasible in the 2030s and no later than the 2050s. Japan is pursuing its own research program with several operational facilities exploring different aspects of practicability.
In the United States alone, electricity accounts for US$210 billion in annual sales. Asia's electricity sector attracted US$93 billion in private investment between 1990 and 1999. These figures take into account only current prices. With petroleum prices widely expected to rise, political pressure on carbon production, and steadily increasing demand, these figures will undoubtedly also rise. Proponents contend that an investment in research now should be viewed as an attempt to earn a far greater future return for the economy. Also, worldwide investment of less than US$1 billion per year into ITER is not incompatible with concurrent research into other methods of power generation.
Contrary to criticism, proponents of ITER assert that there are significant employment benefits associated with the project. ITER will provide employment for hundreds of physicists, engineers, material scientists, construction workers and technicians in the short term, and if successful, will lead to a global industry of fusion-based power generation.
Supporters of ITER emphasize that the only way to convincingly prove ideas for withstanding the intense neutron flux is to experimentally subject materials to that flux — one of the primary missions of ITER and the IFMIF, and both facilities will be of vital importance to the effort due to the differences in neutron power spectra between a real D-T burning plasma and the spectrum to be produced by IFMIF. The purpose of ITER is to explore the scientific and engineering questions surrounding fusion power plants, such that it may be possible to build one intelligently in the future. It is nearly impossible to get satisfactory theoretical results regarding the properties of materials under an intense energetic neutron flux, and burning plasmas are expected to have quite different properties from externally heated plasmas. The point has been reached, according to supporters, where answering these questions about fusion reactors by experiment (via ITER) is an economical research investment, given the monumental potential benefit.
Furthermore the main line of research—the tokamak—has been developed to the point that it is now possible to undertake the penultimate step in magnetic confinement plasma physics research—the investigation of ‘burning’ plasmas in which the vast majority of the heating is provided by the fusion event itself. A detailed engineering design, supported by substantial technology R&D, has been developed for a tokamak experiment which would explore burning plasma physics and integrate reactor relevant technology. In the tokamak research program, recent advances in controlling the internal configuration of the plasma have led to the achievement of substantially improved energy and pressure confinement in tokamaks—the so-called ‘advanced tokamak’ modes—which reduces the projected cost of electricity from tokamak reactors by a factor of two to a value only about 50% more than the projected cost of electricity from advanced light-water reactors. In parallel, progress in the development of advanced, low activation structural materials supports the promise of environmentally benign fusion reactors, and research into alternate confinement concepts is yielding promise of future improvements in confinement.
Finally, supporters point out that other potential replacements to the current use of fossil fuel sources have environmental issues of their own. Solar, wind, and hydroelectric power all have a relatively low power output per square kilometer compared to ITER's successor DEMO which, at 2000 MW, should have an energy density that exceeds even large fission power plants
ITER has decided to ask AIB-Vinçotte International (an inspection organisation located in Belgium and accredited by the French Nuclear Authorities ASN) to assess the confinement vessel, heart of the project, following the French Nuclear Regulatory requirements.