Fusion Delayed: ITER Start Date Moved Again

The scheduled start-up date for the ITER fusion reactor project looks set to slip again by 10 months to November 2019. The new date comes less than a year after the start-up was shifted from 2016 to 2018. William Brinkman, director of the Department of Energy's Office of Science, said at a meeting of fusion energy advisers on Monday that the schedule was changed at a meeting of ITER heads of delegations in Paris in late February.

ITER, an enormous research fusion reactor which is shortly due to begin construction in France, is a collaboration between China, the European Union, India, Japan, South Korea, Russia, and the United States and is due to cost somewhere between €5 billion and €10 billion. (The cost is a current bone of contention.) Over the past couple of years, the funding partners have become alarmed about the rapidly escalating cost estimates and delays in getting the project moving. The ITER council ordered reviews of the costing system and the project management. Sources say that the European Union, which, as host, is shouldering 45% of the construction cost, has been calling for more construction time because of concern that pushing ahead too fast could lead to unacceptable technical risks. Although Brinkman does not name the E.U., he says that a delay until 2020 was requested but after objections the meeting settled on a start date of late in 2019.

Brinkman also said that the review of the ITER management structure was "very negative." Researchers close to the project told Science that when the project was officially created in 2006, too much power was given to the seven Domestic Agencies, the bodies in each partner that procure parts for the reactor from industry, and not enough to the central organization, which consequently cannot manage the project properly. Brinkman says this issue is now being addressed and told the committee, in less than kind words, what he'd like to do to the person who designed the current management structure.

The ITER management is now adjusting cost estimates and construction schedules to take account of the new completion date. Those documents and the reactor's detailed design must be approved by the full ITER council, which is due to meet next in June but could call a meeting sooner.