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World's most complex nuclear plant now 50% built

A vast international experiment designed to demonstrate that nuclear fusion can be a viable source of energy is halfway toward completion, the organisation behind the project said yesterday.

The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), currently under construction in southern France, is a 10-year-old international project aimed at exploring the commercial use of fusion power, the same energy source from the Sun that gives the Earth its light and warmth.

A global collaboration of scientists and engineers are currently building a hydrogen fusion machine with 10mn parts to prove the process can be artificially replicated on our planet.

ITER, the most complex science project in human history, will use hydrogen fusion, controlled by superconducting magnets, to produce massive heat energy.

This would produce power free from carbon emissions, and potentially at low cost, if the technology can be made to work at a large scale.

It will involve heating hydrogen plasma to 150mn degrees Celsius, ten times hotter than the core of the Sun.

The 1,000-ton electromagnet that sits at the centre of the machine will have to withstand forces of over 6,000 tons—equivalent to twice the thrust of the Space Shuttle at take-off.

If scientists can find a way to harness this source, it could provide enough electricity for millions of years.

ITER scientists said a pineapple-sized amount of hydrogen offers as much fusion energy as 10,000 tons of fossil fuel coal.

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Unlike in existing fission reactors, which split plutonium or uranium atoms, there’s no risk of an uncontrolled chain reaction with fusion and it doesn’t produce long-lived radioactive waste.

The effort to bring nuclear fusion power closer to operation is backed by some of the world’s biggest developed and emerging economies, including the EU, the US, China, India, Japan, Korea and Russia.

The 35-nation consortium began construction a decade ago, under an unusual arrangement that called for the various countries to contribute components for the reactor taking shape at Cadarache.

The US is responsible for 9% of the total cost.

Earlier this year, ITER's total budget was revised upwards from €18bn to €22bn (US$21-26bn).

US politics may further impact project costs.

The Trump administration is conducting a review of civilian nuclear policy, including research and development, which will inform US policy toward ITER in the future, said Shaylyn Hynes, a spokeswoman for the US Department of Energy.

ITER's Director-General, Bernard Bigot, said the project is on track to begin superheating hydrogen atoms in 2025, a milestone known as "first plasma."

"We are now doing nearly 1% per month (in) progress – around 0.6 to 0.7%, which is a very precise way in full transparency," Bigot said.

The concept of the project was conceived at the 1985 Geneva Summit between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev.

When the ITER Agreement was signed in 2006, it was supported by leaders like French President Jacques Chirac, US President George W. Bush and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

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