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It’s official: The design of a European nuclear power plant has now begun with the aim of commercializing this “clean” electricity by 2054. The first phase, which lasts five years, will be devoted to key technology decisions that will help shift fusion power from idea for commercial exploitation. The demonstration plant, called DEMO, will deliver power of 300 to 500 megawatts.
Nuclear fusion research is progressing well. It is actually one of the best anticipated solutions to produce energy without CO2 emissions or radioactive waste. Because it relies on almost inexhaustible resources and poses no risk (to humans or the environment), nuclear fusion is considered a safe and sustainable energy source. Many physicists try to design the ideal reactor that is capable of producing more energy than is needed to initiate and maintain the fusion reaction.
Records in terms of plasma efficiency and longevity are becoming more and more frequent – proof that we are getting closer and closer to the goal. Most of the projects use tokamaks, machines designed to limit burning plasma using powerful magnets. The DEMO plant will be no exception: it will also rest on a tokamak and then collect the heat from the reaction to convert it into electricity. However, many parameters need to be defined before considering its construction.
A project that brings together almost 5,000 experts from all over Europe
The EUROfusion Research Consortium brings together almost 5,000 experts from across Europe around the largest and most comprehensive fusion R&D program in the world. Earlier this year, EUROfusion researchers already demonstrated the potential of fusion by setting a world record of 59 megajoules of renewable fusion energy at the Joint European Torus (JET) in Culham, UK – currently the largest and most powerful tokamak in the world.
This latest record strengthens the credibility of the ITER project, which is currently under construction in the South of France – whose first plasma production is scheduled for December 2025 – and is also in favor of the development of the DEMO plant. The JET, like all the other existing tokamaks, acts as a kind of test bearing; they are an opportunity to test different materials and containment devices to determine the best way to produce energy. But so far, the “net gain” in energy has never been achieved.
The plant must be able to control and maintain the plasma for much longer than the experiments performed so far. Until then, there are several issues that need to be clarified, starting with the refining of tritium – one of the two fuels needed for the reaction. The fusion of deuterium and tritium (which are two isotopes of hydrogen) will produce a helium nucleus and a neutron. Deuterium is available from water, so it is almost inexhaustible. Tritium will be produced during the fusion reaction when the generated neutrons interact with the lithium modules covering the vacuum chamber.
It is still necessary that the neutrons can escape from the plasma to come and hit the walls of the tokamak, and that these are able to withstand this influx of neutrons! This applies not only to the demonstration plant, but also to all the other fusion reactors, such as ITER. The shape of the tokamak, oblong or spherical, must also be carefully considered.
A state of the art is shared with the entire scientific community
The team gathered around DEMO presented the results of its preconceptual phase (2014-2020) in a special issue of the journal Fusion Engineering & Design. It thus shares the state of the art in the design of demonstration power plants through 25 peer-reviewed open-source scientific publications. The design of magnets, the choice of materials, the production of tritium, heat extraction, nuclear safety, … absolutely all critical points are addressed.
” DEMO’s design and R & D activities in Europe benefit greatly from the experience gained during the design, licensing and construction of ITER emphasize Gianfranco Federici, Head of Fusion Technology at EUROfusion, and Tony Donné, Program Director of EUROfusion. However, both are a reminder that uncertainties in fusion science and engineering will persist throughout the design and engineering phases.
The two researchers also specify that DEMO’s work cannot wait for the completion of ITER: ” If DEMO engineering design efforts begin too long after the delivery of ITER, a highly skilled and experienced workforce will be lost to other industries, with an inevitable brain drain and loss of experience. they write at the end of the series of articles and insist that education and training programs dedicated to nuclear fusion will be essential to support its development and deployment.
The conceptual design is expected to be completed in 2027, but DEMO is unlikely to be the world’s first nuclear fusion power plant. In fact, several private companies in the sector, such as Tokamak Energy and First Light Fusion in the UK, plan to put a power plant into operation by the 2030s. China has announced that its China Fusion Engineering Test Reactor (CFETR) will produce up to 2 gigawatts when completed around 2035. The UK is also said to be launching its first fusion power plant, called STEP (for Spherical Tokamak for energy production), whose construction will be completed around 2040.