ITER nuclear fusion project begins assembly

The facility could see plasma generated in the machine shortly after the assembly phase ends in 2025

The world's biggest nuclear fusion project, ITER, entered its five-year assembly phase. After this is finished, the facility will be able to start generating the super-hot "plasma" required for fusion power. The €20bn facility has been under construction in Saint-Paul-lez-Durance, southern France.

ITER is a collaboration between the EU, China, India, Japan, South Korea, Russia and the US. All members share in the cost of construction. Current nuclear energy relies on fission, where a heavy chemical element is split to produce lighter ones. Nuclear fusion, on the other hand, works by combining two light elements to make a heavier one. This releases vast amounts of energy with very little radioactivity.

Iter will confine hot plasma within a structure called a tokamak in order to control fusion reactions. The project will aim to help demonstrate whether fusion can be commercially viable. France's President Emmanuel Macron said the effort would unite countries around a common good. The facility could see plasma generated in the machine - a notional start to operations - shortly after the assembly phase ends in 2025.

"ITER is clearly an act of confidence in the future. The greatest advances in history have always proceeded from daring bets, from journeys fraught with difficulty. At the start it always seems that the obstacles will be greater than the will to create and progress. ITER belongs to this spirit of discovery, of ambition, with the idea that, thanks to science, tomorrow may indeed be better than yesterday," Macron said.

But fusion power has its sceptics. Making it commercially viable has been difficult because scientists have struggled to get enough energy out of the reactions. Advocates believe ITER can overcome the technical hurdles and that, given the planetary challenges being faced, fusion is worth the expense and effort.

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