Opening the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) 29th Fusion Energy Conference (FEC 2023) in London, IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi began by wishing a happy 40th anniversary to the Joint European Torus (JET) which operates at Culham near Oxford. Jet was “the first tritium experiment in Europe, breaker of scientific records, producer of generations of accomplished scientists and engineers, and a true magnet for international collaboration,” he said.
The conference attracted more than 2,000 participants from 40 countries. “Since the early 1960s, this conference has been the marker of many milestones; a place where Nobel prize winners, inventors and scientists have come to unveil their achievements, often months and years in the making,” said Grossi. “For decades, the Fusion Energy Conference has been setting the direction of fusion research – from the shift to the tokamak after the 1968 conference to the discovery of H-mode after the 1982 conference.” The IAEA fosters the exchange of scientific and technical results in nuclear fusion research and development through its series of FECs, the first of which was held in 1961 in Salzburg.
According to the IAEA’s Fusion Device Information System (FusDIS), as of 2023, there are almost 130 experimental fusion devices and testing facilities operating, under construction or being planned, and a dozen demonstration plant or pilot plant designs under development. IAEA says attention is now switching to the challenges of demonstrating the technological feasibility of fusion power as well as to its safe and economic viability. FEC 2023 is intended as a platform for sharing the results of research and development in both national and international fusion and to identify advances in fusion theory, experiments, technology, engineering, materials, advanced concepts, safety, socio-economics and preparation to industrial deployment.
Grossi noted that, since the last Fusion Energy Conference, in 2021, there have been momentous achievements in the field. These include JET’s world energy record; the US National Ignition Facility’s scientific energy gain; Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Commonwealth Fusion Systems’ high-temperature superconducting magnet; and in China, EAST’s long-pulse operation. Meanwhile, more than $6bn has gone into the private sector.
He announced that, next year, IAEA will convene the inaugural World Fusion Energy Group bringing together indispensable scientists and engineers, policy makers, financiers, regulators and civil society. “This next leg of the fusion energy journey will get us from experiment to demonstration to commercial fusion energy production,” he said.
He added that the IAEA will continue to support research in fusion through its Coordinated Research Programmes. “We will continue to provide and manage important atomic and plasma physics data through seven fusion databases.” Grossi said the Agency’s Fusion Portal, which has more than 10,000 users a year, is home to the Fusion Device Information System, which has been visited more than 40,000 times. The IAEA’s Nuclear Fusion journal continues publication after more than 60 years.
Gross predicted that private-public partnerships will become increasingly important as the emphasis on R&D for fusion power plants grows. “We are seeing more and more start-ups enter this space. Many, like Kyoto Fusioneering, will become important parts of the supply chain that builds the fusion power industry. But like a puzzle, these pieces only become a coherent picture when you align them.” IAEA is able to align fusion energy R&D programmes “to give us a clearer picture of where the sector is heading”. This will help make the most of existing facilities and optimise the development of new ones.
He added: “I will shortly invite fusion experts to work with the IAEA to outline Fusion Key Elements such as fusion-related definitions, characteristics and criteria for fusion energy to help develop common understanding among stakeholders essential for global deployment. I expect these Fusion Key Elements to be ready by the inaugural gathering of World Fusion Energy Group.”
Grossi concluded: “The IAEA has been, is and will be the central hub for international cooperation and coordination in fusion, just as it is for fission. That is why I believe we should not only discuss where we are today. Let us pave the way, support each other, and nurture projects and groups around the world.”
Also addressing the conference on the opening day was Pietro Barabaschi, director general of the multinational International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) project in France. He stressed the need to ensure a sufficient, and skilled, workforce for fusion development, noting that there had been a need to recruit people who had retired, because of the skills and knowledge they had. As to ITER, Barabaschi said it continued to work on the project's revised timeline, which was expected to be agreed and announced in mid-2024. The official timeline, agreed in 2016, was for first plasma in 2025 but was later postponed to 2036 and may now face further delays. He said the timeline update would "not be good news but we will go ahead and we will succeed, I'm very sure about that".
According to Ian Chapman, CEO of the UK Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA), ten years ago there had been an ageing workforce in the UK, as a result of intense training over the past decade, more than half the workforce was now under 40. He said steps had also been taken to ensure the experience and knowledge built up over the past decades at JET would not be lost when it switches to its decommissioning phase at the end of the year.
There was much talk of collaboration being key in the future, and Asked about the UK government's decision not to continue as part of the ITER project, Chapman said the UK was still involved in some work that predated the Brexit-related end of new contracts and both the UK and ITER hoped to continue to collaborate and hoped for success "as soon as possible".
With the participation of international organisations such as Iter and the European Atomic Energy Community (Euratom), as well as representatives of more than 40 countries and a large number of research institutes and organisations, FEC23 is expected to identify the possibilities and means for continuous and effective international collaboration.