In the 1940s, attempts by the UK and the US to build the hydrogen bomb had a few useful byproducts, such as technologies that were able to use the power of the atom to generate electricity. The process of nuclear fission, which produces dangerous waste, was developed, and has been used since then to produce power the world over. Sadly, the other technological byproduct of the hydrogen bomb—nuclear fusion, which uses abundantly available fuel sources and emits no harmful radiation—never quite made the cut.
But this is fast changing. After the Fukushima disaster in March 2011, conventional nuclear plants that use fission technology are being shuttered in many parts of the world. The rush for the Holy Grail has begun. Activity to prove that fusion is feasible and economically viable has picked up, and new breakthroughs are speeding things up.
India, with its huge power deficit, is among the countries that have taken the lead in developing these technologies. The government has sealed its commitment through a sanction of Rs 2,500 crore to seed research of nuclear fusion. The funds are expected to be increased, as the work spearheaded by the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE), grows. At the focus of much of this activity is one reactor being built in the south of France.
The $20 billion project that aims to generate just 500 MW, which could indeed change the world, is called Iter (Latin for ‘the way’). It is being built by a consortium of seven partners—the European Union, the United States, Russia, China, Korea, Japan and India—to demonstrate the viability of harnessing energy from nuclear fusion on the scale of a power station.
Before this project, electricity from nuclear fusion has been produced only in laboratories. As the host-partner of the project, the EU is the largest contributor with a 34 percent stake. India has taken up 9 percent, which will be executed by the Gandhinagar-based Iter-India, a division of the Institute of Plasma Research. The seven partners will contribute in kind by bringing components to the project. In India, a lot of this work will be done by the private sector.
“Indian companies—both in the public and private sectors—with capabilities in nuclear and space industries are being awarded contracts,” says Shishir Deshpande, Iter-India project director. Nine large components, amounting to almost a tenth of the project, will be fabricated and sourced from India. The biggest of these, to build the cryostat—a 3,800 tonne pressure chamber the size of a 10-storey building—was awarded to Larsen & Toubro in August. The component, worth over Rs 1,000 crore, will be built in India and shipped to France in sections.