* Construction of experimental reactor well under way
* New ITER chief estimates total cost at 18 billion euros
* Costs hard to estimate as partners contribute in kind
By Geert De Clercq
CADARACHE, France, Oct 6 Construction of an
experimental nuclear fusion reactor in southern France is in
full swing as the cost estimate has ballooned to nearly four
times the original estimate, but the ITER project's new head
says new forecasts are realistic.
The seven partners in the International Thermonuclear
Experimental Reactor (ITER) - Europe, United States, China,
India, Japan, Russia and South Korea - launched the project 10
years ago with a 5 billion euro ($5.6 billion) cost estimate and
plans to heat the first plasma by 2020 and achieve full fusion
by 2023. By 2011, the budget forecast had swollen to about 16
In May, new ITER chief Bernard Bigot - former head of French
nuclear state agency CEA - told a French newspaper ITER would be
delayed by more than a decade and incur another 4 billion euros
of cost overruns, with the first test of its super-heated plasma
not before 2025 and its first full-power fusion not before 2035.
Unlike existing fission reactors, which produce energy by
splitting atoms, ITER would generate power by combining atoms in
a process similar to the nuclear fusion that produces the energy
of the sun.
"We expect first plasma in December 2025 and full power by
2035. For sure, that schedule is still challenging but it is the
best technically achievable schedule, taking into account the
financial constraints," Bigot told reporters during a visit to
the ITER site in rural Cadarache.
Bigot estimates the overall cost until commissioning will be
of the order of 18 billion euros. Compared to the 2010 baseline,
the cost increase is about 4 billion euros, he said.
"For the first time, we have a reliable estimate ... In the
past there was no realistic schedule, no detailed appreciation
of the cost ... It was much underestimated," said Bigot, who
succeeded Japan's Osamu Motojima as ITER head early last year.
He said that giving a precise estimate is difficult as
partner countries contribute most of their shares in the project
in kind, by producing components.
"Many domestic agencies do not want to disclose their exact
costs," he said.
He said that only the contribution of Europe, which funds 45
percent of ITER, and that of the United States are released to
Bigot said the running cost of the ITER organisation plus
the domestic agencies in the partner countries is about 200
million euros per year. Any delay to the project automatically
increases the cost by that much.
Laban Coblentz, ITER head of communication, said that since
partner countries contribute about 80 percent of the value of
the project in kind, it is difficult to give precise cost
estimates. "This is the source of the inaccuracy when we try to
compile the total number," he said.
Coblentz said ITER estimates the total project cost at
between 18 to 22 billion euros.
"If all partner countries had European levels of cost and
bureaucracy and you extrapolate based on European costs, it
would be at the higher end of the range ... Cost could be up to
22 billion euros at the maximum," he said.
Construction at the ITER site in rural Cadarache got under
way in 2013-14, but has accelerated from April-May 2015 onwards.
"We have seen more progress in the last six months than in
the last three years," Coblentz said.
Laurent Schmieder, head of construction at ITER, said by
2019 the building that will house the so-called tokamak fusion
reactor will be complete. The cost of the buildings alone at the
complex will be about 2 billion euros, he said.
The challenges of replicating the fusion process on earth
are enormous and critics say it remains unclear whether the
technology will work and eventually be commercially viable.
($1 = 0.8964 euros)
(Editing by David Evans)