The International Fusion Research Project--Technology Impacts and Benefits for Canada


In 1985, Reagan, Gorbachev, and other world leaders launched the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) fusion energy project. ITER, which means "the way" in Latin, is an international fusion energy research and development project with the goal of taking the next major step in the development of fusion as a safe, clean, and sustainable energy source. On 7 June of this year Canada's ambassador to Russia, Rod Irwin, launched Canada's bid to host ITER, announcing Canada's offer of a site in Clarington, just east of Toronto. Other site offers in the European Union and Japan are under consideration.

Fusion is the energy source that powers the sun and stars. In fusion, the nuclei of light elements such as hydrogen fuse together to make heavier elements. In the process they give off tremendous amounts of heat energy. The heat energy is converted to electric energy using traditional industrial equipment. The core ITER plant would comprise the tokamak, its auxiliary systems, and supporting plant buildings and facilities.

ITER would be the world's largest international cooperative research and development project other than the space station. It would be constructed for approximately $6 billion over 8 years and operated for 20 years for about the same amount. It is an experimental fusion machine based on the "tokamak" concept--a toroidal (doughnut-shaped) magnetic configuration that is used to create and maintain the conditions for controlled fusion reactions.

A study on the technology impacts of ITER was conducted by The Impact Group for Iter Canada, the nonprofit company committed to locating the ITER project in Canada. The study explored the potential technology impacts of ITER, with a particular focus on its benefits.

According to the study, ITER will be one of the most demanding science projects ever undertaken, in that it will require the coordination and integration of many cutting-edge technologies. The study concluded that, of the 66 major areas of technology that the ITER project would require, Canada already has proficiency in 38 areas. This proficiency, the report argues, makes Canada an excellent choice for hosting the project. The report also notes that Canada has considerable experience in designing the sort of infrastructure that the ITER project will require, as well as world-class expertise in essential areas such as control-room automation, tritium systems, and remote handling.

But the benefit for Canada, the report suggests, would be in the areas where Canada lacks proficiency. "In the remaining 28 areas," notes the report, "there is an opportunity to improve domestic capabilities; for example, in such areas as: superconducting magnets, diagnostic equipment, and advanced materials."

According to the report, the ITER project would also have long-lasting economic benefits: "Iter has the potential to produce benefits across a wide spectrum of activity: new products, product improvement, know-how and methods, research training, linkages and networks, software, intellectual property, spin-off companies, and of course, scientific knowledge."

Perhaps the greatest advantage to hosting ITER would be the training of young scientists, which would have benefits both direct and indirect. The scientific and technical complexity of the fusion project demands research expertise and training in a wide range of natural science and engineering fields and disciplines; from civil engineering to plasma physics. But there may well be additional benefits. "As happens in other science disciplines," notes the report, "young people who gain research experience at Iter will eventually find employment in very different sectors; from aerospace to telecommunications, information technology and even the investment industry. Thus Iter will act as a 'training engine' helping young people develop the skills that will be of use in many different areas."

The decision on the preferred site for ITER is expected by June 2002.

To view a copy of the Iter Technology Impact Study, for more information, and to keep abreast of the latest developments, visit Iter Canada's Web site.

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