The 2,226th Meeting of the Society

October 12, 2007 at 8:00 PM

Powell Auditorium at the Cosmos Club

The International Fusion Energy Project – ITER

Michael Roberts

Corporation for National Research Initiatives
Department of Energy's Fusion Energy Sciences (Retired)

About the Lecture

The member countries who signed the recent ITER Agreement are China, the European Union, India, Japan, South Korea, Russia and the US. These countries represent half the world’s population. It took twenty years of effort to prepare this international science project aimed at taking the next major step toward the realization of fusion energy’s promise. The process used to reach the Agreement, as well as the negotiated positions represented in the Agreement itself, may be useful in future efforts toward other large-scale international science ventures. This talk will cover the development of ITER and why it can be relevant to more than fusion energy scientists and engineers. The presentation will discuss what has actually been achieved and agreed, and what comes next.

About the Speaker

Michael Roberts joined the Department of Energy’s Fusion Energy Sciences program in January, 1979 and was responsible for the US international fusion activities, including ITER, for more than a quarter-century through mid-2006. He became involved with the (then titled) International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (now simply called ITER) at its earliest inception, in September, 1985 in Moscow. Subsequently, he was the principal US DOE person responsible for ITER at working level, both internationally and domestically, throughout its various evolutionary phases. He participated in all the negotiations, leading the working level delegations and supporting the official negotiators. He retired from the Department of Energy following completion of these years-long negotiations on the ITER Agreement in mid-2006.

He was awarded two Presidential Rank Awards, (Meritorious Executive), for his leadership in the US and international efforts toward ITER. He received the first award at the start of the ITER Engineering Design Activities (EDA) work in the mid-1990s and the second award, just recently, at the end of the formal negotiations. He served as Chair of the IEA Fusion Power Coordinating Committee and as Chair of the ITER Contact Persons during the EDA.

He was awarded a Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering from Cornell University in 1966. He then joined the Oak Ridge National Laboratory where he was responsible for building the first all-new US tokamak fusion experimental device. He then led the development of the Oak Ridge proposal for a US burning plasma facility (which became the Tokamak Fusion Test Reactor at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory), activities which were steps along the way to ITER.


President Ruth McDiarmid called the 2,226th meeting to order at 8:14 pm October 12, 2007 in the Powell Auditorium of the Cosmos Club. The recording secretary read the minutes of the 2,225th meeting and they were approved.

Ms. McDiarmid made the announcements about parking, dues, costs, and so on. She encouraged people to bring friends to the meeting. She reminded us that the club has a dress code and we should come to the Florida Avenue entrance unless we are formally dressed.

Ms. McDiarmid then introduced the speaker of the evening, Mr. Michael Roberts, retired from the Department of Energy. Mr. Roberts spoke on The International Fusion Energy Project – ITER. Mr. Roberts indicated that nothing he said purported to represent the Department of Energy. The view of ITER he presented is his own.

“Fusion,” Mr. Roberts said, “is the energy of the Sun and the stars.” The process on earth, however, is not how it works on the sun.

Fusion research has been under way for 50 years. The process is easy to draw, but hard to do. The research is aimed at demonstrating the feasibility of fusion power generation. Why do this research? Fusion energy would be a carbon-free energy. The fuel would be primarily sea water. There are questions of technical feasibility and public acceptance, which is why they are researching.

Mr. Roberts focused on the process and product, believing that the process ITER went through and the result may have valuable precedents for other international science projects and policies related to them.

The partners in the Project are the European Union, Japan, China, India, Korea, the Russian Federation, and the United States. ITER is being constructed in Europe at Cadarache, in the south of France. The U.S. is a junior partner.

ITER, the machine, is huge. He showed a picture of it. There was a man in the picture, but we had to look carefully to see him. He was about 1/20 the height and much less of the width of the basic structure. The main feature of the structure is a big toroidal tube, rather like a truck tire, surrounded by circuits.

The project is also huge. The countries involved represent more than half the world’s population. It is expected to cost about €10 billion, $13.1 billion. There have been 85 procurement packages so far. The organization is structured top-down and bottom-up and is partly distributed function and partly centralized.

Mr. Roberts considers the process of ITER of great importance and interest. Each party had a negotiating team led by a senior government official. Negotiators met in Vienna, where the IAEA is located, and in various parties’ countries. Staff met to define and work on specific issues. Negotiating and working meetings were scheduled to allow for discussion in capitals and interaction by email. Everyone had to adjust to the condition that no one was in charge.

ITER’s evolution began at the 1985 US-USSR Geneva Summit. After that, the EC and Japan were invited to join and it became a four-party, consensus based activity. The US withdrew and rejoined and Canada joined and withdrew. Serious negotiations began in 2003 with the US & China and then Korea. After the 2005 Bush-Singh meeting, India joined. All parties have equal status. A party may be active or passive, but all parties must agree on the text of the agreements, on voting arrangements, and on all matters.

ITER’s relevance is that it can lead to fusion energy and to advances in fusion energy science and technology. It may also demonstrate that at least these seven parties can collaborate on international mega-science and may be of great value for other great projects like the International Linear Collider.

It is an encouraging example of even seemingly intractable problems being solved by finding acceptable compromises among differing policy, programmatic, and legal positions. What made it work? Having a common purpose, for one thing. Also, fusion is far from military or commercial application. There was strong support from the presidential and prime ministerial level. The group had rapid access to government officials. Finally, there was a strong aversion to “bringing home a failure.”

Language was an important early decision. It was agreed early on to conduct the project in English. At the ministerial level, translations were freely available.

The site question was loomed large. Both the EU and Japan made strong cases for hosting the site. President Chirac and Prime Minister Koizumi got directly involved and neither country wanted to lose. The resolution occurred through an analysis of the costs and benefits of winning and appropriate trade-offs.

He also cited excitement and dedication as important success factors. The project was important enough to capture the imagination and drive the effort of the participants, and to attract committed people.

He showed a picture of the current ITER agreement, typed and neat, and bound with a carefully tied red ribbon. He next showed a picture of his original draft agreement in 1985, scrawled on lined paper, with handwritten notes and corrections all over it. That draft was shared among the original parties and became the ITER Engineering Design Activities Agreement of 1992, which grew into the present Agreement. The Agreement has 29 articles and the signatures of seven governmental authorities. The Agreement was to take force October 24, 2007. The operating body, the International Organization (IO) was operating provisionally as Mr. Roberts spoke. ITER an ambitious energy research project and an ambitious experiment in international collaboration on a grand scale.

So far, Mr. Roberts said, ITER is showing that these seven parties can work together on an international science project of grand scale. He hopes their agreement and accomplishment can be a template for other such projects. Stay tuned, he advised, and referred us to and for updates.

In the question period, Mr. Roberts indicated that the project will output 500 units of energy for an input of 50 units. It is, however, a laboratory, constructed for research, not for power generation. He is, he said, “reasonably sure” it will be operating by 2016.

The European Union pays 45% of the cost. France, where the reactor will be located, pays a disproportionate share.

The design, he said, is basically done. Only a little basic research is needed to complete the design.

After the talk, Ms. McDiarmid presented a plaque commemorating the occasion to Mr. Roberts and welcomed him to a year’s membership in the Society. Finally, at 9:33 pm, she adjourned the 2,226th meeting to the social hour.

Attendance: 60
Temperature: 13° C
Weather: Cloudy
Respectfully submitted,

Ronald O. Hietala
Recording secretary