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Nuclear Fusion: The global ITER project to create a miniature sun on earth for clean energy, and India’s contribution & lack of it

India has not provided enough manpower to the ITER project that it is entitled to, and has defaulted on monetary contribution

India is on its path to become a five trillion-dollar economy. For a country with so much to look forward to, it is essential to intensify the research and development of sources of clean energy. Since 2014, India has worked extensively in increasing energy production using cleaner sources such as solar power and wind power. However, experts are now showing concerns that in the future, the e-waste produced because of solar panels will be a menace as currently, there is very little scope to recycle it. On the other hand, there is one energy source that is cleaner and has a lot of potentials, and that is Nuclear fusion energy.

It is a matter of pride for India that it is an active partner of a project dedicated to developing fusion technology. A group of 35 nations, including India, came together in 2004 to build the world’s largest magnetic fusion device, TOKAMAK. The aim is to develop technology that can produce energy using fusion technology on a large scale. As it will be a carbon-free energy source, it will have a substantial positive impact on the environment. For India, the technology may mean getting rid of the highly polluting thermal power plants that are burning coal in the next few decades. It has to be noted that India produced 729.10 Million Tonnes of coal in the financial year 2019-2020.

The ITER project

International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor or ITER is an ambitious project to develop sustainable and affordable fusion technology to produce clean energy. 35 nations are currently working together in southern France to build the world’s largest magnetic fusion device known as TOKAMAK. The main aim is to prove the feasibility of fusion as a large-scale and carbon-free source of energy. It can be compared to developing a small scale Sun right here on earth. The production of energy is based on the same principles that Sun and other stars use to produce energy.

Thousands of engineers and scientists have contributed so far to ITER’s design since its idea first emerged in the scientific community back in 1985. The European Union, India, Japan, Russia, the United States, Korea, and China engaged in a 35-year collaboration to build and operate the ITER experimental device.

What will ITER do?

European TOKAMAK JET (1997) holds the world record of fusion power. It produced 16 MW of fusion power from a total input heating power of 24 MW. The amount of fusion energy TOKAMAK can produce directly proportional to the number of fusion reactions that can take place at its core.

The project aims to develop a large-scale experimental device capable of producing 500 MW of fusion power using 50 MW of input heating power. It has to be kept in mind that the experiment aims to produce net energy gain. It will not capture the energy as electricity but will pave the path for the technology that can do so. The ITER TOKAMAK will be the first fusion device that will produce more energy than it consumes.

The scientists working on the project are confident that the deuterium-tritium plasmas in ITER will produce much more fusion energy than current capabilities, and it will remain stable for a longer duration. In the later stages, scientists will try to demonstrate the feasibility of producing tritium within the vacuum vessel as currently, the world supply of tritium that is used with deuterium to fuel the fusion reaction is not sufficient to cover the future needs. Another aspect of the project is to develop the technology in a way that has a negligible impact on the environment.

The first Plasma at ITER is scheduled for December 2025. The machine will be powered up for the first time. The central TOKAMAK building was handed over to the TIER Organization in March 2020 to start the machine assemble. In July 2020, India’s Larsen & Toubro (L&T) Heavy Engineering Ltd sent a 3800-tonne cryostat, which is a giant vacuum chamber for the machine. As per the July data, 70.5 percent of the project execution to First Plasma is complete.

India’s contribution to ITER

When India joined the project formally in 2005, 9.1 percent of the construction costs fell on India’s shoulders. The total cost of the project is 24 billion US dollars. All members working on the project are contributing in-kind and in cash. India is contributing 2.2 billion US dollars or 20,000 crore rupees that includes both monetary support and components.

Apart from monetary support, several key components including cryostat (manufactured by L&T and delivered in June 2020), cryo lines and cryo distribution system, in-wall shielding, cooling system and heat rejection system, ICRF source system, power supplies for DNB, ICRF and other systems, gyrotron support and diagnostics support are being provided by India.

Trained and qualified nuclear scientists from India are working on the project. Currently, there are around 25 scientists lodged at ITER from India, gaining important knowledge about the project. Recently, ITER appointed Nalinish Nagaich as head of corporate. He oversees human resources, finance, procurement and contracts, information technology, and project control. Before joining ITER, he has worked on top ranks at Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd (NPCIL).

Problems from Indian side and what India can do

Though India’s in-kind contributions have been on time and Bernard Bigot, the director-general of ITER, has praised India’s contribution calling India’s work on the cryostat “an unprecedented engineering challenge and achievement,” there are several issues where India has to step up.

Lack of manpower

The first problem is with manpower. As per the regulations, India can deploy scientists in sync with the contribution it is making. As India’s contribution stands at 9.1 percent, there can be as many as 95 Indian nuclear scientists gaining knowledge at the ITER. However, the data suggests that the number of scientists India has sent since 2016 stands at a maximum of 4.8%instead of 9.1%. At present, only 25 scientists are working in the project instead of 95 allowed for India. The lack of manpower is resulting in the loss of crucial knowledge and expertise that India can gain from the project.

Bigot, during an interview, mentioned that the Department of Atomic Energy or DAE has hundreds of bright scientists working on various projects. He said that he fails to understand why India is not sending more scientists to work on the ITER. They will gain unmatchable experience while working with colleagues from 35 other countries.

The major problem with the said policy in the context of ITER is that such projects run for multiple decades. Due to the strict policy in place, the Indian scientists who had worked for five years have to leave the opportunity of gaining more knowledge and experience on the project.

There is a policy in India that scientists can join projects like ITER for only for five years. Korea, too had such policy in the past, but to improve its contributions, they have amended the policy. What India can do to improve its stand in the ITER is to increase the number of applicants for different positions in ITER and relax the policy so that qualified scientists can work for long term on such projects.

Lack of financial support

The other problem that ITER has brought up is in-cash contributions. Bigot said that India has majorly defaulted in terms of the in-cash contributions. Since 2017, India has been unable to fulfill its promise. He added that the other member states are ‘very unhappy’ with India. The outstanding amount now touches Rs.1,000 crore. Though India has fulfilled in-kind contributions by sending supplies, the in-cash contribution helps to defray the labor cost.

Bigot said, “This year is very crucial, and India should pay its money as soon as possible.” Bigot adds, “I am very sorry to see India facing difficulty in arranging the in-cash component.” Bigot, normally a mild-mannered atomic diplomat, says, ‘if the [Indian] cash does not arrive, ITER will be in danger.’

At this time, the Indian government must speed up clearing dues in terms of in-cash contributions for ITER. Bigot said that there is no doubt that India has played its role very well in supplying the components for the project but to assemble the components at the site, manpower is required. The experts hired for the project need to be paid, and without adequate in-cash contributions, ITER can’t continue.

India’s history with fusion technology and how ITER can help in Atmanirbhar Bharat Abhiyaar

India is not new to fusion technology. ADITYA TOKAMAK, the first TOKAMAK designed and fabricated in India by the Institute of Plasma Research, Gandhinagar, was commissioned in 1989. BHEL, L&T, and several other companies and organizations have worked together and gained knowledge and experience from the project.

India has been working on SST-1 (or Steady State Superconducting Tokamak) since 1995. Its second part, SST-2 dubbed as DEMO, has already been commissioned with an aim to develop a full-fledged nuclear fusion reactor to produce electricity. Equipped with several new features including D-T plasma, Test Blanket Module, Biological shielding and an improved diverter, SST-2 will be deployed in the state of Gujarat. As India is moving ahead with Atmanirbhar Abhiyaan, in-house nuclear fusion technology can help to solve major environmental issues like pollution and climate change that arise as an unwanted by-product of industrialization by reducing carbon footprint and nuclear waste.

With ample contributions in terms of financed and manpower to the ITER project, India’s in-house fusion reactor can become a reality quicker than anticipated. There is no doubt that India has decades of experience in nuclear fusion technology. However, ITER TOKAMAK can provide crucial knowledge about the technology to develop a fusion reactor that can produce more energy than it consumes.

How nuclear fusion is better than nuclear fission

In Fission, a neutron slams into a larger atom. The collision forces the atom to excite and split into two smaller atoms. Additional neutrons are released in this process that can initiate a chain reaction. At the time when an atom splits, it releases a tremendous amount of energy. Most commonly, Uranium and Plutonium are used in nuclear fission reactors as they are easy to initiate and control.

On the other hand, in Fusion, two atoms slam together to form a heavier atom. For example, when two hydrogen atoms fuse, they form one helium atom. It is the same process that is happening in the Sun. It creates enormous amounts of energy in the process, multiple times more than nuclear fission. Also, there are no highly radioactive fission products. As the by-product of fusion is helium, an inert gas that has a negligible impact on the environment, it is safer to use.

The issue here is that the nuclear fusion reaction is much harder than it may sound. The scientists are working for decades to develop a sustainable nuclear fusion reactor that can produce more energy than it consumes. Fusion is difficult to sustain for a longer duration, and ITER TOKAMAK is an ambitious project to attain a sustainable fusion reaction that can last longer and produce more energy than it consumes. If India steps up in time and does its part in terms of manpower and monetary support, the future of fusion technology in India can be much better.

India’s recent statement on ITER

In a joint statement, India and EU said at the 15th India-EU Summit on 15th July that they will continue to work together on the fusion research cooperation within the ITER project. On 28th July, when the assembly of the ITER TOKAMAK started, Prime Minister Narendra Modi congratulated the ITER organization for their hard work and success. He mentioned the Indian philosophy of “Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam” as the entire world is working together for the betterment of mankind. He said that India is proud of its fair share of contributions in developing the technology. India has shown its interest in the development of the technology and has contributed to par the requirement in-kind.

Importance of Indian scientists staying for a longer span at ITER

The construction of the project will be completed in 2025, with a timeline of 18 years. After the construction completes, the operation phase will be of 20 years. As per the policy, Indian scientists of the Department of Atomic Energy can only stay at ITER for five years. No scientist can gain the full experience of the design, construction, and operation. The decreasing number of Indian IO staff is problematic as it reduces our capacity to achieve the required know-how. It is also impacting the position of India in the decision making process at several levels within the organization.

On the other hand, China has maintained Chinese IO staff at 10% that is helping it to gain the required knowledge. After returning from ITER, scientists do not actively participate in the development of fusion technology and shift to their previous role in the organization, making their role at ITER obsolete for India’s ambition in nuclear fusion technology. The government of India has to intervene and amend the current policies regarding the tenure of the stay of Indian IO staff. To ensure India gets the required knowledge of design, construction, commissioning, and operation of the large-scale fusion reactor, the government needs to improve its position in the eyes of the ITER organization.

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