19 Sep

It is a fact that, alternative energy sources are being produced for a long time to substitute non-renewable sources such as oil and natural gas. As of 2018, it is foreseen that main non-renewable energy sources, oil, natural gas, and coal, will be exhausted respectively in 36, 57 and 119 years.[1] 85% of the energy is produced from non-renewable energy sources which results in hazardous consequences. Therefore, it is not surprising that the tendency towards alternative sources is gaining momentum. One of the hazardous consequences can be expressed as “damage to nature”. The debate on global warming is beyond dispute; because of the overheating, the glaciers are melting and the conditions of the seasons are noticeably changing. Moreover, global warming is also one of the reasons that accelerates the direction towards alternative energy sources. However, the acceleration is not that fast.

In this regard, Elon Musk, who increased his popularity by entering into the electric car market with Tesla, has recently shared his ideas about energy sources in an interview with Joe Rogan: “It’s important that we accelerate the transition of sustainable energy, that’s why electric cars matter. We really play a crazy game here with the atmosphere to the oceans. Taking vast amounts of “carbon” and putting this in the atmosphere is crazy. We should not do this. It’s dangerous. We should accelerate the transition of sustainable energy. Bizarre thing is that actually we are running out of oil in long term. We must have sustainable energy transport and energy infrastructure in the long term. We know that’s the end point. Momentum towards sustainable energy is just too slow.” In the interview, Musk also described the continuation of this dangerous game by insisting that non-renewable energy sources represent “easy money” earned from the sale of those. In my opinion, when the debate of conflicting interests is in question, money seems to be superior than the damage that nature faces.

It is also possible to hear a few different projects in this setting even though those are not as popular as Musk’s Tesla. The most exciting of these projects is the ITER (International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor) which may be able to replace all energy resources in the future if it succeeds. ITER is an experimental project, aiming to comprehend the energy production logic of the Sun and the stars, which creates the most reliable source of energy since the beginning of human history. Dwarf stars, like the sun combine hydrogen atoms to form helium, and at that moment they produce incredible sizes of energy. The nuclear physical event that causes the energy to emerge is called fusion. The logic of this project is to provide energy production by controlling the fusion within the system called “tokamak”.

The last step that has been taken since the November 1985 Geneva Superpower Summit was the awareness raised for the necessity to the confinement of the plasma. The confinement of the plasma may be possible by using the system Tokamak, which has the task to heat the gas more than the temperature of the Sun’s core, in order to create the required environment for the fusion. This system was established in Southern France after an international contract signed by China, the European Union, India, Japan, Korea, Russia and the United States. When the results of the negotiations between the UK and the European Union after the Brexit and its impacts on the UK and the ITER Project are taken into account,  the possible withdrawal of the UK’s investments, under the JET and EURATOM Agreements, is still a mystery and a separate debate topic .[2]

Another issue is about the safety of ITER due to the risks that it encloses. In the ITER Tokamak, temperature will reach to 150 million °C—or to ten times of the temperature of Sun’s core.  While the idea of capturing such severe heat was raising concerns about safety and environment, the ITER Organization seemed to have worked in detail.

Can a Fukushima-type accident happen at ITER?

Absolutely not. The fundamental differences in the physics and technology used in fusion reactors make a fission-type nuclear meltdown or a runaway reaction impossible. The fusion process is inherently safe. In a fusion reactor, there will only be a limited amount of fuel (less than four grams) at any given moment. The reaction relies on a continuous input of fuel; if there is any perturbation in this process and the reaction ceases immediately. Even in the event of the total loss of the cooling function, ITER’s confinement barriers would not be affected. The temperatures of the vacuum vessel that provides the first confinement barrier would under no circumstances reach the melting temperatures of the materials.”[3]

Within the ITER Organization, apart from the technological tests and audits conducted to sustain security, the project is also covered by legal necessities to provide responsibility regarding to the environment. The ITER Organization is licensed in safety matter -with detailed documents of more than 5000 pages- after years of careful examination maintained by the nuclear safety authorities. “For the first time in the history of fusion research, a fusion device had successfully gone through the process of nuclear licensing. Throughout construction, commissioning and operation, ITER’s safety processes will comply with French regulations, as verified regularly through audit and inspection by the French nuclear authorities.”[4]

The organization also offers great opportunities for businessmen and investors. Anyone who is interested can participate to the forums and tenders organized under the umbrella of ITER Organization. In the near future, as it was planned, ITER Business Forum will take place in Antibes Juan les Pins, South of France from 26 to 28 March 2019.

ITER Business Forum, with its 1005 participants and representatives from 25 countries, aims to provide more detailed information about ITER, to introduce investors from all around the world, and to foster collaborations between industries and Fusion laboratories.[5] The main need-to-know issue of the investors and businessmen is the procedure of the tender process in ITER Organization. Tender Process is divided into 3 categories as Call for Nomination, Pre-qualification and Call for Tender.

Call for Nomination, where Domestic Agencies are formally requested to provide the names of potential candidates. The candidates shall liaise with relevant Domestic Agencies to express their interest for a required supplies, services or works. The IO could also add a potential candidate if needed after having informed the DA. Pre-qualification, where the IO will establish a list of qualified suppliers amongst the nominated entities, based on specific selection criteria. All nominated companies receive the pre-qualification package. Call for Tender, where only the pre-qualified candidates will receive the tender package from IO. Tenderers shall submit offers in response to the Call for Tender package composed of Instructions to Tenderers, IO Technical Specifications, Special and General Conditions of Contracts. The evaluation of the tenders submitted has two steps: first the technical offers are evaluated with respect to the award criteria indicated in the Instructions to Tenderers and only those obtaining scores higher than the technical threshold indicated shall be considered for the financial evaluation. The financial evaluation is based either on the combined quality and price scoring mechanism (best value) or on the cheapest technical compliant offer.”[6]

As a result, although the tendency towards renewable energy sources is growing very slowly, the large scaled project ITER is quite exciting in terms of reversing the momentum suddenly. Considering the damages caused by the consumption of non-renewable energy, the success of this project may be one of the biggest steps which will direct us to look forward to the future with hope.

ITER doesn’t seem to have the popularity it deserves right now. However, being less popular than it should be is reasonably acceptable for ITER because, the development duration of Tokamak lasted quite long and experimental project ITER has not achieved its first plasma. I believe that ITER will gain the popularity it deserves until December 2025, when the first plasma will take place. Just as stated in ITER’s slogan, “Haven’t heard ITER, chances are you will soon.”

[1] http://www4.ncsu.edu/~kpadia/CS895/HW5/
[2] Article, Brexatom: How Will Leaving The Euratom Treaty Impact The UK Nuclear Sector?, Robert M. ArmourAndrew Newbery and Maxine Symington.
Article, Brexatom – Britain Set To Exit The European Atomic Energy Community – Potential Implications,  Maxine Symington
[3] https://www.iter.org/mach/safety
[4] https://www.iter.org/mach/safety
[5] For detailed information. http://www.iterbusinessforum.com/SaveTheDate.aspx
[6] https://www.iter.org/proc/tenderprocess

Author: Ahmet Soybaş

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