Finding a Thermonuclear Common Ground for Humanity

ITER Fusion power Project unites world leaders around peaceful cooperation
Hussein Askary
The Belt and Road Institute in Sweden (BRIX)

During the first week of August, the world commemorated the 75th anniversary of the immoral and completely unnecessary nuclear bombing of the two Japanese cities Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6th 1945 by the United States. At the same time, the global media has been rife with speculations and stern warnings of a war breaking out between the U.S. and China as expressed by experts and officials from both China and the West. It is needless to state that any war between the major nuclear powers of thew world could potentially involve the use of thermonuclear weapons, leading ultimately to the end of human civilization.

However, amidst all this otherwise justified attention to the dangers of war and especially nuclear war, a history-making “thermonuclear event” went unnoticed in almost all major mainstream media in the East and the West. On July 28, leaders and representatives of China, the EU, Russia, Japan, India, South Korea, and the United States greeted the participants of a ceremony, dedicated to launching the assembly of the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) which took place at the megaproject’s construction site in Cadarache, Southern France. The goal of the international project is to reach a sustained nuclear fusion reaction.

According to Karel Vereycken, the vice-president of the Solidarity and Progress Party in France, which has promoted fusion power for decades, “while up till now, many powerful fusion machines have individually succeeded in obtaining one or some of the numerous criteria required (temperature, density, duration, etc.) to induce break-even conditions in a magnetic confined plasma, ITER, by its scope and design, aims to achieve not one but all the required conditions in one single giant machine, that even if it fails reaching its target, will bring about many interesting questions to be answered”.

As recounted on its website, the ITER project (initially proposed by Russian and US scientists) was one of the results of the Geneva November 1985 ”fireside summit” between U.S. President Ronald Reagan and the Soviet Union’s Secretary General Mikhail Gorbachev, which calmed down war tensions and opened a new era in the US-Soviet relationship. At that time Gorbachev and Reagan “emphasized the potential importance of the work aimed at utilizing controlled thermonuclear fusion for peaceful purposes and, in this connection, advocated the widest practicable development of international cooperation in obtaining this source of energy, which is essentially inexhaustible, for the benefit of all mankind.” Eleven months after the fusion initiative was launched at the Geneva Summit it was confirmed at the Reykjavik Summit in October 1986. A Quadripartite Initiative Committee was formed with EURATOM and Japan, and “The Big Machine” was on track. Soon, it would be called ITER.

The new machine is to weigh 23,000 tons and will have a plasma volume of 830 cubic meters, far higher than the tokamaks operating today in different countries, which have maximum plasma volume of 100 cubic meters. The cooperation process is not limited the 7 member states, but engages 35 partner countries, that have pooled their vast expertise and resources into this grand project.

Leaders unite behind common goals

In his greetings message to the event, Chinese President Xi Jinping, stressed that “the active explorations and practices through the past over 10 years have fully proved that open exchanges are a key route for exploring scientific frontiers”. Noting that “science is not bound by national borders” and “innovation is an endless endeavor”, Xi said international scientific and technological cooperation “is critical to addressing global challenges”. Xi further said: “The ITER project embodies the human desire for the peaceful use of fusion energy.. As the world is tackling severe challenges brought by the COVID-19 pandemic, humanity needs now more than ever to forge partnerships and overcome hardships”.

President Emanuel Macron, whose country France hosts the ITER reactor, said: “There are times when the peoples and countries of the world choose to overcome their differences to rise to the historical challenge of their times. And the launch of the ITER project in the mid-2000s is one of such moments. ITER is a promise of peace. The United States, Russia, China, Japan, Europe, India and Korea, making available their greatest scientists and their best know-how for the common good of humanity. It is proof that the best that unites men and nations is stronger than what divides them.”

Expressing his hope for the success of this experiment, he said: “ITER is a promise of progress, of confidence in science, and it is already a scientific and technological feat. Imagine that the experiment is conclusive, that it can find industrial applications tomorrow. We will have developed an energy that is non-polluting, carbonized, safe and practically waste-free, which will make it possible to meet the needs of all areas of the globe, to meet the climate challenge and to preserve natural resources. With fusion, nuclear power can be an energy source of the future, even more than it already is.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin said in his message posted on the Kremlin website that “despite the coronavirus pandemic-related restrictions, it was possible to preserve the required pace of works. He stressed that “this makes it possible to expect that the project’s goals will be achieved in the previously determined time span, and that, in foreseeable perspective, we will get a source of energy of unique power and safety, which will, undoubtedly, help solve the tasks of sustainable economic development and improve the quality of lives of millions of people”. Putin also noted that ITER is the largest international scientific and technical project, which is a shining example of efficient and mutually beneficial multilateral cooperation. “As you know, Russia as one of the founding countries of this initiative, aimed at making an important contribution to humanity’s energy security, plays an active role in this initiative’s implementation,” the message runs.

Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said in his message conveyed by Japan’s Research Minister Hagiuda Koichi: “I believe disruptive innovation will play a key role in addressing global issues including climate change and realizing a sustainable carbon-free society.”
The South Korean President Moon Jae-in said that the project “seeks to create an artificial sun, an artificial sun is an energy source of dreams.”

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in a statement read by the Indian ambassador to France, called international collaboration “a perfect symbol of the age-old Indian belief … (that) the world is one family.”

From the United States, Secretary of Energy, Dan Brouillette said in his message: “The ITER effort has also helped to renew enthusiasm and optimism about the commercial promise of fusion energy. Several start-up companies across North America have been established in recent years to explore potential concepts of fusion energy. Let’s go to work — let’s change the world!”
As associated Press noted, “there was no sign of the acute discord currently roiling ties between the U.S. and China, and India and China.”

The Promise of Fusion Power

It is generally agreed among scientists and economists that fusion power, unlike nuclear fission power is safer, more powerful and can provide almost unlimited amounts of electricity and heat power to meet the needs of all nations from electricity. This will allow nations to eliminate poverty and launch a high-quality industrialization process. This will potentially eliminate the tension created over the past century around the control of hydrocarbon resources, the main source of power for the world economy. It can also ease the pressure on natural resources that are required for human consumption. Besides, power generation the industrial and scientific applications of fusion are almost unlimited in scope, from using the massive heat produced for chemical processes, production of metals from ore-poor soils, including recycling of metals, to the most promising use of fusion rockets for interplanetary travel. A trip to Mars would take weeks rather than months, saving time and more importantly the health of crews of manned missions.
The ITER project website says the following about fusion power: “Fusion, the nuclear reaction that powers the Sun and the stars, is a potential source of safe, non-carbon emitting and virtually limitless energy. Harnessing fusion’s power is the goal of ITER, which has been designed as the key experimental step between today’s fusion research machines and tomorrow’s fusion power plants.”

As for sustainability, Fusion power is inherently bounless, especially with regards to its fuel source. According to ITER’s website “Fusion fuels are widely available and nearly inexhaustible”, noting that Deuterium can be distilled from all forms of water, while tritium will be produced during the fusion reaction as fusion neutrons interact with lithium. “Terrestrial reserves of lithium would permit the operation of fusion power plants for more than 1,000 years, while sea-based reserves of lithium would fulfil needs for millions of years,” It argued.

A beautiful global work of art

Rather than the description of the ITER machine as “puzzle” of millions of parts, it should correctly called a “beautiful work of art”, because all the million parts have been designed and many of them produced, and their places in the machine have been decided. What is more beautiful is that all these parts are produced by different nations on all continents and shipped to the location in France. To illustrate the milestone start of the assembly phase of the giant ITER tokamak reactor, an exciting 8-minutes video is posted on the ITER website, animating the assembly process of elements from around the world. The fascinating aspect of the construction of the parts in the different nations is that, while each nation thinks and works in accordance with its own industrial culture and working methods, they simultaneously keep their eye on the united effort. It is like the major orchestra where the individual players are both focused on playing their part by looking their own notes, they still have to listen to the other players around them and keep an eye on the conductor to create a harmonious whole.

All the major components are produced in the different 7 nations and their collaboration partners and were shipped to Cadarache, which is, in itself, a challenge. The assembling of the parts, like any major work of art, takes time. It will take 5 years to complete, and the first preliminary testing experiments are scheduled to start in 2025.

Commononalities not differences

As this author explained in a previous article on international collaboration in Space, scientists are more inclined than politicians to look for what is common and in the interest of all humanity. For example, the American-Swedish astronaut Jessica Meir expressed this notion really candidly in a tweet from the international space station “From up here, it is easy to see that we are truly all in this together.” Many astronauts expressed the same feeling that when in space, they don’t see those geopolitical boundaries, all the man-made boundaries and ideological divides that people have imposed upon themselves. The astronauts do not focus on the differences among themselves, but only on the commonalities in order to be able to work together and survive.

As the tension between the U.S. and China reached a peak with new threats issued by U.S. officials against Chinese tech-companies and new sanctions and counter sanctions issued from both sides, an article published on August 7 by Yang Jiechi, a State Councillor and Director of the Office of the Foreign Affairs Commission of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China’s pointed at the importance of finding common grounds of agreement between the U.S. and China in order to safeguard stability in the world. The main thrust of Yang’s article was the importance of focussing on commonalities rather than differences between the two social, cultural, and political systems of the U.S. and China. “As President Xi Jinping pointed out in his important speech at the UN Office at Geneva in 2017, there is only one Earth in the universe, and we mankind have only one homeland; caring for and cherishing the Earth is the only option for mankind. All countries should work for a new type of international relations and build a community with a shared future for mankind”, Yang emphasized in his article.

As the ITER project shows, it is possible for people from different nationalities, ethnic and cultural backgrounds to work together on solving a very delicate problem, given that its solution represents an achievement of one or more of the universally recognized common goals of mankind.