Fusion with ITER

Thermonuclear Fusion reactions power our Sun and the stars. The physics of nuclear fusion started becoming clear only in the 1920s when British astrophysicist Arthur Eddington suggested that stars burn bright due to the energy released from the fusion of hydrogen to form helium.

By the 1950s, scientists started looking at how to replicate the process of nuclear fusion on Earth. Hydrogen bomb was the result. A less destructive approach was proposed in 1950 by Soviet scientists Andrei Sakharov and Igor Tamm. This was Tokamak, a type of magnetic trap to confine the hot plasma for fusion. Subsequently the tokamak has been shown to be the most efficient concept. Academician Evgeny Velikhov sold the idea of international co-operation in building a fusion reactor to General Secretary Gorbachev.

At the Geneva Superpower Summit in November 1985, the idea of a collaborative international project to develop fusion energy for peaceful purposes was proposed by Gorbachev to US President Ronald Reagan. A year later, an agreement was reached: the European Union (Euratom), Japan, the Soviet Union and the USA would jointly pursue the design for the International Thermonuclear experimental Reactor (ITER). Conceptual design work began in 1988, followed by increasingly detailed engineering design phases until the final design for ITER was approved by the Members in 2001. The People’s Republic of China and the Republic of Korea joined the Project in 2003. Canada, a tentative partner in the early days withdrew from the project in 2004.

E.U., which has been at the vanguard of ITER, began to encourage other countries to join. For India, this came when Sir David King, the Science Adviser to the British government, visited India in March 2004. In mid 2004, India made a formal request to join ITER. Indian Collaboration in ITER was mooted at the Indo-E.U. summit in November 2004.

Following this an ITER fact-finding mission visited the IPR and other centres in October to appraise itself of the Indian competence in fusion research as well as industrial capabilities relevant to ITER. We organized presentations at IPR and visits to major industries in Mumbai and Bangalore to help the mission appreciate India’s strengths in advanced engineering and software. I remember telling a young Times of India reporter who covered the meeting that she was witnessing history.

The report of the ITER exploratory mission on India was considered at the 2005 October ITER negotiations meeting in Chengdu, China, which identified a series of steps that needed to be taken by the parties to enable a decision on India. The thaw in the Indo-US relationship following the signing of the Civil Nuclear Agreement also helped pave the way for India’s final acceptance. After the next ITER meeting in Vienna on November 7, where every member favoured India’s entry, India was directed to apply formally to the ITER parties for joining the consortium. This formality completed; India was admitted as a full partner early in December at the ITER meeting at Jeju Island in Korea.

In the 2005-11 period, numerous trips happened in connection with India’s bid to join the project. The process of being approved for the partnership happened in a series of negotiation meetings held in Cadarache near Aix en Provence in France. The Indian delegation was led by Dr. Ravi Grover from the Department of Atomic Energy. Prof. P. K. Kaw, Director IPR was the scientific leader. Many other colleagues from IPR and DAE were members of the Indian delegation. The meetings were extremely formal.

The Air France flight to Paris starts at midnight from Mumbai. The early morning flight from Paris to Marseilles, in a small aircraft is sometimes very jerky during mistral, a period of sustained winds from the northwest.  The winds can be sometimes hazardous during landing.

Aix en Provence is 50 km from Marseilles in Southern France. The 19th century post-impressionist painter Paul Cézanne lived and worked in Aix. Its boulevard Cours Mirabeau is one of the most beautiful boulevards. The street is lined by towering trees, creating a beautiful tunnel effect, and along the street are countless cafes, restaurants, and shops. The Atelier Cézanne, the studio in Aix where Cezanne created much of his works is open for visitors. The IPR part of the Indian delegation usually stayed in a cosy little hotel, St. Christophe, by the Cours Mirabeau and with frequent visits, we became honoured patrons. 

Paris flights often had celebrities. ITER travels were all done in the business class and hence proximity with them was usual. In one of the flights, Amitava Ghosh, Gyan Peeth awardee and the author of Hungry Tides and the Ibis trilogy was beside me. I had read all his books and hence it was not difficult to strike up a conversation with him. He mentioned that he had many physicist friends in TIFR when I told him about ITER and our role in building it.

The final meeting of negotiations took place in a bitterly cold December of 2005 in South Korea, in the Jeju island, traditional destination for honeymooners. This meeting was to finalize the major points of on the agreement on the joint implementation of the ITER project. The Indian delegation included N. Parthasarathy, our Ambassador to S. Korea. Key issues such as intellectual property rights, sharing of resources, cost sharing and in-kind contributions were cleared. 

The eighth meeting of the ITER preparatory committee (IPC8) took place in April 2006 in Goa, with India hosting and chairing for the first time. IPR organized this meeting, which discussed issues relating to implementation of the ITER Joint Implementation Agreement, to be initiated by the Parties’ representatives in May in Brussels. It discussed how to recruit the remaining senior management and organize the project team structure, and how to then smoothly integrate existing and new staff working at multiple joint work sites into the new project team being organized in Cadarache.

After India’s accession to ITER, I became a member of the ITER Council and the Science and Technology Advisory Committee (STAC) representing India. Fulfilling my mandate involved further trips. But now the destination began to shift from Cadarache to other places.  One meeting took place in June 2009 in Mito in Japan, a city one hour away from the Narita Airport by train. Mito has art shops resplendent with the prints of Hokusai, the great Japanese master who created the ‘The Great Wave’, woodblock prints of Mount Fuji, with a palette of indigo and Prussian blue.

I remember the Japanese trip specifically because I started playing with an idea of writing a novel about ITER. Plot was to consist of all the ITER politics in the early days, the site selection, India’s entry, the building of the machine and the final climactic chapter when the unexpected plasma instabilities are suppressed by a technique developed by an Indian computer modelling expert, appropriately named Aditya, who save the day for ITER. I discussed this idea with Prof. Kaw, during our halt in an airport near the Nagoya airport on the way to Mito. He was supportive, but the plan never got beyond the plot.

The following year, we had another Council meeting in Suzhou, China, known for its pristine UNESCO-designated gardens dating back to the 11th century and its ancient waterways. Being a two-day meeting, we were busy with work and had little time for sightseeing.

STAC is the conscience keeper of ITER making sure that there is no compromise in the final scientific and technical objectives of ITER. However, to ensure this in ITER, where the politics is even more convoluted than the technology, is a Herculean task. There is a full realization within the ITER system that Prof. Kaw, as Chairman of STAC did a great job in resolving many complex STAC issues and helping ITER formulate its technical specifications.

Attending the ITER meetings was a great learning experience. These were memorable trips, though burdened with the serious task of ensuring that India’s interests were upheld. I saw how the national delegations, though fervently protecting their interests, always made magnanimous concessions when the overarching interest was to enable the creation of a unique international project which would usher in the energy for the future. I also saw our own struggles to establish an indigenous fusion research programme being vindicated when the International community assessed our strengths and invited us to join a select club of fusion-faring nations.


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