Considerations for safer and less costly nuclear energy

The machine assembly of the “tokamak” (derived from the Russian words for the “toroidal magnetic confinement” facility invented in Russia) nuclear fusion reactor ITER (International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor), or the world’s largest nuclear fusion project, started in Cadarache, France, in the last week of July. The ITER machine is being assembled to replicate the fusion power of the sun, to enable generation of clean unlimited energy.

The world’s largest science project is intended to demonstrate that fusion power can be generated on a commercial scale and the first ultra-hot plasma is expected to be generated in late 2025. The world’s most technologically advanced nations — China, India, Japan, South Korea, Russia, the UK, US, as well the EU — have come together in their common fight against climate change to make up ITER’s 35 partner countries, while Nuclear Asia examines India’s role and contribution to the project.

Millions of components from all over the world will be used to assemble the giant reactor, which will weigh 23,000 tonnes. While the EU is taking care of 45% of the cost of construction, the rest of the member countries are sharing 9.1% cost each. Among the components is the 30-metre diameter cryostat manufactured by India, which surrounds the reactor and keeps it at the extremely low temperature required. The reactor is likely to cost over Euro 20 billion. As part of its share, India is contributing resources worth around $2.2 billion, and in return, the country will have access to 100% of the intellectual property related to ITER. ITER Director General Bernard Bigot, said in a recent interview, however, that India’s contribution to this landmark project has run into major hurdles.

India is contributing two kinds of resources — “in-kind” material manufactured by the Indian industry for the construction of the reactor, as well as the “in-cash” contribution. According to Bigot, while India has fuilfilled its equipment commitments till date, it has defaulted majorly on the “in-cash” portion. “In the in-kind part, India has been performing well, but we’re very unhappy with India’s in-cash contribution, where it has defaulted for a few years. Since 2017, India has not fulfilled its in-cash contribution”, Bigot said.

He pointed out that the in-cash contribution is used to defray the on-site labour costs. “I have to pay for the assembly of hundreds of kilometers of pipes, valves etc. Because India has been unable to pay its contribution for the last few years, the other participating countries have had to pay for this labour cost,” Bigot said. “This year is very crucial, and India should pay its money as son as possible. I am very sorry to see India facing difficulty in arranging the in-cash component. If they (India) go on like this, ITER will be in danger”, he added.

The second issue in India’s ITER participation is her inadequate allocation of human resources for the project. Each member country can provide up to 10% of the project staff, which, as per the quota, means India can send up to 100 of its engineers and scientists to work at the ITER. However, Bigot revealed that currently only 25 Indians are working at the project, while this massive shortfall is owing to Indian government policy.

“We are missing a lot of Indian applicants. Fortunately, the existing Indian staff are highly qualified, but India needs to relax its policy to allow more number of staff to work at ITER, which will be a unique learning experience for them,” Bigot said.

He explained that as per India’s policy, government staff cannot be posted abroad for more than two years, and for experts from autonomous institutions the term limit for postings overseas is five years, which is counterproductive for the ITER project that has a gestation period of more than 20 years.

“India needs to amend its policy since it is difficult to recruit people for just five years when the project has a much longer timeline. India needs to change its internal policies so that more Indians can be accommodated on this overseas assignment”, Bigot said. In this connection, he also pointed to another provision of India’s policy which provides that only personnel who are staff of the government’s Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) can be deputed to ITER. “Secondly, India should change its policy to allow staff from other organisations to work at ITER,” he said, adding that it will be a “win-win situation” as the Indians can profit from working alongside international colleagues.