Fusing the future—a power struggle (podcast interview)BBC Babbage podcast, 5 June 2019
Director-General Bernard Bigot is one of the scientists interviewed during a 20-minute podcast on fusion produced by the BBC for its Babbage
Could the long-promised dream of nuclear fusion—to provide clean, limitless, carbon-free energy—finally be about to come true?
ITER marks 10 years of thermonuclear fusion in ProvenceProvence Promotion, 15 November 2017
The program is at the midpoint of its journey to produce its first plasma in 2025.
Since 2007, the world's energy scientists have had their eyes trained on the Provence town of Saint-Paul Lez Durance. Ten years after the beginning of preparations to build an experimental thermonuclear fusion reactor, the ITER program is now at the midpoint of its journey to produce its first plasma in 2025. The 3,200 people who work on the site each day include many foreign engineers and scientists who are discovering the pleasures and quality of life in Provence. Bernard Bigot, Director General of ITER Organization, looks back on the milestones of this experimental scientific undertaking, the only one of its kind in the world. Why was Provence chosen to host the experimental nuclear fusion reactor?
The determination of national and local political leaders and the scientific and academic community, along with the fusion expertise and skills of CEA-Cadarache and the research conducted at Aix-Marseille Université, were decisive factors. The qualities of the site itself—neither too close nor too far from major cities, proximity to water and electricity resources, the quality of air and rail transport facilities—were also significant. After all, we have access to water from the Provence Canal and are connected to the European power grid. In 2002, the local governments in the Provence-Alpes-Côtes d'Azur region committed to providing €467 million in financial support to, among other things, create an international school in Manosque and build the ITER route along which the heaviest machinery is transported. From 2007 to 2017: it has already been 10 years since the project started. Can you take stock and tell us about the outlook? What are the next milestones?
The international political consensus on fusion was formalized in 2006. A 35-year international agreement (2007-2042) was signed and, to date, 60% of the work has been completed to manufacture the components and erect the building that will house the Tokamak. The building will be completed in the first quarter of 2020. By the end of 2017, we will start assembling the components for the cryogenic plant. In 2019, we will begin assembly on the vacuum chamber components and vertical spools. The first plasma is expected in 2025. The project's overall cost will be €20 billion. How many people work each day on the construction site?
A total of 3,200 people work on the ITER site each day: 2,000 work directly on the construction site and 1,200 are involved in implementing the international program. That includes 800 employees who work for the international ITER Organization and 400 highly skilled contractors. The European Union's joint undertaking for ITER (Fusion for Energy), which is responsible for building the structures, and the Engage consortium have 500 staff members on site.
Beyond that are the employees of the domestic agencies of the ITER members, or some 1,200 people who work in China, the European Union, India, Japan, South Korea, Russia and the United States to manage industrial contracts to manufacture the components for which they are responsible. Is it possible to measure the economic impact of ITER in Provence?
So far, the worksite has generated close to €6 billion in industrial (manufacturing, civil engineering) and service contracts in Europe. More than half of these contracts were awarded to French companies, and nearly three-fourths of those businesses are located in the Provence-Alpes-Côtes d'Azur region. Thus, several hundred million euro are injected into the local economy each year. ITER spends €300 million on payroll and local services (surveillance, accounting, etc.), in addition to its outlay on industrial contracts and subcontracting. Very hefty calls for bids to assemble the machine have been issued. These contracts will start in late 2018/early 2019 for a five- to six-year period. More than 380 companies—SMBs and major corporations alike—are working to move the project forward. And 80% of them are French businesses...
The quality of life in our region is a real source of appeal to employees who come from all over the world to work here. Workers live in Aix, Manosque and Vinon and in the villages near the site. Is it reasonable to imagine that nuclear fusion will be part of the energy mix one day?
Nuclear fusion is a potential source of clean energy. It has zero impact on the climate or the environment and it is safe and provides massive, continuous power production. This makes it a major alternative to fossil fuels. ITER does indeed aim to demonstrate that fusion can contribute to the worldwide energy supply. For the first time in history, we are going to be able to study "self-sustaining plasma" and the learnings are bound to be extremely valuable. We are also going to learn a lot about managing and maintaining a fusion facility. ITER is a decisive step forward in demonstrating the industrial feasibility and economic profitability of fusion energy. Read the full article
"ITER is a global response to a global challenge"Foro Nuclear, 17 January 2018
Bernard Bigot explains during this detailed interview with Spain's Foro Nuclear
that "fusion energy is clean and safe" and ITER represents the culmination of decades of international research towards the industrial exploitation of fusion energy. Fifty percent of the total construction work scope through First Plasma is now complete. He believes that "in the second half of this century we will have accumulated enough knowledge and experience to create a large fusion industry." Could you please give us a summary of the ITER Project for readers that are not familiar with it?
ITER is a unique research project that aims to duplicate, here on Earth, the nuclear reactions that occur at the core of the Sun and Sun-like stars—the fusion of hydrogen nuclei into helium and energy. As you can imagine, it is a huge technological challenge. But it is the key step to accessing a new energy source, one that could bring a decisive contribution to meeting humankind's ever-growing needs in energy. ITER represents both the culmination of six decades of international research carried out on hundreds of fusion machines worldwide and a decisive and indispensable step towards the industrial exploitation of fusion energy.
ITER is also unique in that it brings together seven partners representing 35 nations, half the world's population and 85% of its industrial production. Never in history have so many nations worked together to achieve a common goal. ITER is a global response to a global challenge. 100,000 kilometres of superconducting strands, 150 million degrees centigrade, 23,000 tonnes of reactor weight. These are some of the impressive numbers for this experimental fusion reactor. Is everything in this project equally immense?
Contrary to a fission reactor, which can be miniaturized to fit into a submarine or a space probe, an energy-generating fusion machine is necessarily large. In order to achieve a "burning plasma" that produces much more energy than that required to heat it, something that has never been done before, we need to heat and confine a large volume of plasma (~ 850 cubic metres). Some of the "impressive numbers" that you mention derive from the plasma volume or, in the case of temperature, from the necessary conditions to achieve the fusion of hydrogen nuclei. What are the advantages of this technology, and the challenges for the coming years?
Fusion energy is clean, intrinsically safe and based on virtually inexhaustible fuels. It is clean because it does not generate CO2 or greenhouse effect gases, nor does it produce long-life/high-activity nuclear waste. It is intrinsically safe because of the very nature of the fusion reaction and because there are never more than 2 grams of fusion fuels in suspension inside the machine at a given time. Besides, and this is one of the reasons why a burning plasma is so difficult to obtain and maintain, the fusion reactions simply stop when all parameters cease to be nominal. A Fukushima or Chernobyl-type accident is simply not possible in a fusion machine.
Now the fuels: fusion energy can theoretically be obtained through several combinations of light atoms. However, in the present state of our technology, it is the reaction between two hydrogen isotopes, deuterium and tritium, that is the most accessible—although it is very difficult to realize. Deuterium poses no problem: it is easily extracted from water. With tritium, it's a bit more complicated. ITER will consume the few dozen kilograms that are available worldwide and experiment tritium production in situ, inside the machine. We will use the neutrons produced by the fusion reaction to produce tritium from lithium, a metal that is as abundant and widely distributed as lead. So our fuels are water and lithium and they are indeed virtually inexhaustible. There is enough deuterium in a half-filled bathtub, and enough lithium in a laptop battery to cover the electricity needs of an average European for 30 years ... ITER is considered the world's most important research project. How do you handle your job as Director-General in a project of such large dimensions, and what are your priorities?
Becoming the ITER Director-General in March 2015 was not part of my professional plan. Following a long career in research, higher education and top government administration I had just completed two mandates as Administrator-General of the French Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission (CEA) when I was asked by the ITER Council (the organization's governing body) to fill in the job. I had been closely associated with ITER since France's bid to host the project in 2003 and in 2007 I was delegated by the French government to act as High Representative for the implementation of ITER in France. I had a good knowledge of ITER and of the challenges the project was facing.
I accepted the Council's offer at a crucial moment in ITER history, when the project was entering into manufacturing and preparations for assembly. This new phase required a new organization—one tailored to meet the double challenge of delivering an installation that is both a research facility and an industrial facility. What we needed at that point and need even more today was integration. ITER is a complex structure, with a central team here in France and seven "domestic agencies" emanating from the seven ITER Members that are responsible for the in-kind procurement of machine components and installation systems. To achieve this integration, we needed a clear, centralized decision-making process under the authority of the Director-General. This being established and accepted by all, we could move on, as "One ITER," to promote and establish a project culture based on shared values of excellence, adherence to commitments, adherence to schedule and budget, and careful and effective use of public funds. And all the while making safety and quality our highest priority. You lead a team composed of over 1,200 workers living in France but with multiple nationalities. What advice do you have, or what techniques do you use to lead teams with these characteristics?
The ITER staff hails from some 35 nationalities and needs to work as one entity, one large team bent on a common goal. How do we achieve harmony and efficiency? Through mutual respect and the understanding that each culture has its own work habits, traditions and "best practices." However at the end of the day, after well documented debates, decisions have to be taken and implemented by all. The global world we live in has not erased national particularisms. But instead of seeing this as a problem, we see it as an asset: we are building a project culture in a way that takes advantage of the diversity of these "best practices" to achieve an optimal result. And in case we forget these fundamentals, we can attend regular intercultural workshops and seminars... ITER is breaking new grounds and our experience is of great interest to intercultural professionals and students throughout the world. The interview continues on the Foro Nuclear website
ITER chief: I won't live to see benefits of fusion, but I will help us get thereScience|Business, 15 March 2018
Bernard Bigot, Director-General of the world's biggest nuclear fusion project, tells Science|Business
the perpetually out-of-reach energy source is finally in sight—so long as Trump does not scale back US involvement. Read the full article.
"Interest in nuclear fusion has risen immensely"Die Welt, 10 April 2017
The experimental reactor ITER is intended to solve mankind's energy problems. According to Director General Bernard Bigot more and more countries want to join. But they all share one concern. Die Welt's
Daniel Wetzel reports. Mr. Bigot, ITER is the largest project of the international community. But at the moment it seems as if nations are drifting apart. Will the ITER project survive Brexit and Trump?
I have received a provisional pledge from the British government that they want to stay on the ITER project. And they have also made a clear statement in the Brexit document. It is not at all compulsory that Brexit must also mean the complete withdrawal from Euratom, in which the European ITER partners are organized. And withdrawal from Euratom would not necessarily mean withdrawal from ITER. The British fusion organizations and scientists are eager to continue their contribution to ITER through collaboration with Fusion for Energy, the EU body managing Europe's contribution to ITER, and the EUROfusion research collaboration. All of these aspects will have to be negotiated. Do you hear the same from the US?
I visited the US after the inauguration of President Trump, and I spoke with Congressmen, the Department of Energy and the State Department. There are clearly uncertainties. My expectation is that every nation defends its own interests, whatever they may be. And the US wants to know if fusion technology works. Even though they have plenty of gas, oil and space for windmills and solar fields. It is the country that burns the most energy resources in the world. The Americans know that their current way of meeting the energy demand cannot last forever. The US president is not exactly a friend of international cooperation.
I hear that the US president has nothing against international cooperation as long as it is a good deal for the US. And is that so? The experimental reactor is being built in the South of France. And Europe accounts for 45 percent of the project.
That's why it's in fact a very good deal for Mr Trump. The US is paying only nine percent of the costs, but has access to 100 percent of the research results. In addition, the US has conducted outstanding research into fusion technology and has already built its own plants. If it withdrew from the Iter project, the US would have to pursue this technology alone. Because none of today's ITER partners would be likely to cooperate with them. You might get over losing a financial share of 9 percent. But could ITER do without the technical input of the US?
It would be very difficult to do without the US expertise. The central solenoid, for example, the most powerful magnet in the world, consists of 1,000 tonnes of superconducting material. These are not static, but dynamic coils, in which the magnetic field constantly moves up and down. This requires a great deal of expertise, and the US companies are able to deliver it. The same applies to ITER's fuel recycling, that is, the renewal of used tritium and deuterium. The US is the best in doing that. It would take us very long to recover from a potential American retreat. That is why it is so important for me that each of the seven ITER Members, not just the USA, feel that we are now serious about delivering. And, can you deliver? Within the research community, they still tell the old joke about the "fusion constant": According to this, the first fusion reactor is always ready "in 40 to 50 years from now" — no matter when you ask.
That was before I started here. I have committed myself to deliver the first plasma within the budget in 2025. The schedule is fixed. In April 2016, 14 independent experts with special experience in the management of major projects have certified that we are relying on the best and most realistic schedule and planning. Before you took office, the US and other important partners were still considering stepping out of the project. The costs exploded, the work did not progress. What had happened?
My predecessor had not made it clear enough that Iter is not just a research project, but an industrial one. As a researcher you gather all opinions, try to please everyone. But here you have to make decisions. I therefore accepted the office only on the basis that the Director-General has full decision-making powers. The seven ITER Member States have understood that this is the only way forward. This was a turning point. I got full power of authority, full authority over the staff, and I got a special fund of one billion euros that gives me the freedom to make decisions quickly. It relieves me of the obligation to apply for new financial resources for every new problem with all seven members. The interview of Director-General Bigot continues on www.welt.de
A dream of clean energy at a very high priceThe New York Times, 27 March 2017
On the front page of the Science section, journalist Henry Fountain takes readers to the busy ITER construction site, where "workers scurry around immense slabs of concrete arranged in a ring like a modern-day Stonehenge." In reviewing the ambitions, the status and the challenges of ITER, he speaks with ITER Director-General Bernard Bigot, fusioneers and members of the US government. Visit The New York Times for the full article.
New Head of ITER sweeps clean
Fusion in Europe, August 2015
An authentic comment from ITER's Director-General Bernard Bigot in the magazine Nature caused the fusion society to hold its breath. In the article "Pull together for fusion," published on 9 June 2015, Bernard Bigot listed several problems of mismanagement and miscommunication within the ITER Project and discussed how he intends to adjust the ITER management board proper to meet its needs. Fusion in Europe talks to Bernard Bigot about the details in the changed communication within the coming experiment on fusion, its delayed schedule and its influence on the European fusion roadmap. To the Director-General of the ITER Organization, EUROfusion's key facility, the Joint European Torus (JET) is of particular value for the mitigation of risks in future ITER plasmas.
Press interview on the results of the November 2015 ITER CouncilThe ITER Council, which meets twice a year, is responsible for the promotion and overall direction of the ITER Organization. In November 2015, the ITER Council convened for the seventeenth time in a session that focused on the long-term schedule for the project. At the conclusion of the meeting, Director-General Bernard Bigot shared the outcome with members of the press. During the Council meeting on 18-19 November, you presented an updated long-term schedule. Can you tell us how this schedule was received?
The meeting went well. Representatives from all of the ITER Members were able to ask questions, express their concerns, and formulate requests. In the end, we reached an agreement. The Council noted the proposal I made for the best technically achievable schedule for the project, and now the governing body of the ITER Organization needs additional time to be able to endorse—or amend—the proposal with resources.
The updated long-term schedule, and associated budget and staffing resources, will now be the object of an independent review mandated by the Council. The Council has committed to completing its review by June 2016; this is good news. The ITER Project will have a new schedule and, what's more, a new Baseline. Can you give us an idea of the key dates of the new schedule?
Until the Council completes its analysis, no definitive project schedule can be announced. Of course we could not expect immediate approval of our proposals related to schedule, budget, and staffing. A fully qualified panel of experts will be mandated to verify the consistency and reliability of the proposed schedule, and also to see if there are areas that can be improved or accelerated. ITER is funded through public investment and this level of scrutiny is absolutely to be expected.
While the Council is deliberating, the members have agreed to give us the resources to perform to the milestones for 2016 and 2017. This is the best result that I could expect. It allows us to really keep the momentum.
The Council clearly expressed its appreciation for the progress accomplished in eight months on site, within the management team, by the ITER Organization and the Domestic Agencies, and in factories. We have a more integrated way of working. My commitment is that the ITER Organization and the Domestic Agencies never be the blocking point, the limiting step, for suppliers to deliver. You spoke of having the resources you need for the next two years. What milestones must be achieved?
These management, construction and manufacturing milestones were specifically expressed in the Record of Decisions of the Council meeting, for example: the award of the Construction Management-as-Agent contract in 2016, the completion of winding on the first central solenoid module, the beginning of work on the B1 basement level of the Tokamak Complex, and the entry into service of the 400 kV switchyard. If my memory serves me well, there are 20 high-level milestones in 2016 and 9 in 2017. The way forward is clear; each Domestic Agency has a list.
Milestones are a way of managing a project that is a large and as complex as ITER. Below the highest-level milestones are many different strata—approximately 250 activities in the Level 1 schedule, 1,200 in the Level 2 schedule, and more than 150,000 sequences in the Level 3 schedule—each one a precisely defined task with an assigned owner. ITER is an industrial project now. Is it fair to say that you have short-term approval?
The main thing is not to lose time—all are agreed on this. We need a clear schedule and resources. We have the chance in two years to demonstrate reliability and to confirm and consolidate trust.
We were able to keep our commitment to the Council at the needed level of quality and in the limited amount of time we set for ourselves. To do so required the integrated scientific insight, engineering skills, and managerial competencies of every part of the organization. As a team, we performed a bottom-up assessment of the project. As a team, we found solutions to design challenges. As a team, we conducted an exhaustive and comprehensive integrated review. We have taken the first essential steps toward establishing a much-needed project culture. Can you tell us more about the independent review?
The ITER Council wants to be sure of the credibility and the reliability of the proposed schedule to First Plasma. Is everything consistent? Can any improvements be identified? The review will be an external vision, provided by a panel of fully qualified experts who are specialized in tokamaks or large construction projects. These experts will give advice based on experience. Did the Council identify any technical issues needing more examination?
This is a research installation, but for now it has to be managed like a construction project. The planned operational program is in the hands of researchers. This is why we are establishing a network of Scientist Fellows on a goodwill basis—scientists who agree to focus their research on pending questions related to ITER operation. The 25- to 30-year-old researchers today will be in charge of operating the machine tomorrow! If they don't "take ownership" of it in a figurative sense before then, they will not be ready.
Nuclear physics: Pull together for fusion
Nature, 09 June 2015
In June 2005, a group of industrial nations agreed on the location for the world's largest nuclear-fusion experiment: ITER, the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, which they had decided to build jointly.
Today, roughly EUR 4 billion worth of construction contracts and EUR 3 billion in manufacturing contracts worldwide are underway and the first large components are being delivered to the site at St-Paul-lez-Durance in southern France.
Faced with slippage in the schedule—despite the best efforts of the more than 2,000 dedicated people working on ITER—in March 2015 the ITER Council moved to appoint Bernard Bigot, from France, to the top management position of the project. Visit Nature for the full article
An interview with ITER Director-General Bernard Bigot
ITER Newsline, 8 March 2015
An academic, scientist and high-level civil servant who "has always been concerned with energy issues," Bernard Bigot, from France, is the third Director-General to be named at the head of the ITER Organization. He succeeds physicist Osamu Motojima, who was appointed in 2010, and Ambassador Kaname Ikeda, who led the project from late 2005 to 2010.
As he takes up his duties, Mr Bigot reflects on the reasons why he accepted the nomination and draws a broad outline of the action plan that he will implement.
"We are now entering into manufacturing and preparations for assembly," he says. "This new phase requires a new organization—one tailored to meet these two major challenges, because what we have to deliver now is both a research and an industrial facility."
Tough Questions for ITER's New Director GeneralIEEE Spectrum, March 2015 On 5 March, you presented an action plan, proposing changes to the management of ITER. What are the specific problems that you are addressing?
What has plagued the ITER project so far is that we had no efficient decision process, caused by the fact that the ITER Organization and the seven domestic agencies did not operate as an integrated team. We have to make decisions every day, take financial decisions; we need to learn to work together. The question is not to 'control,' but the capacity to work together. What are the changes you proposed?
Bigot: There are three important points. The first one is that the members, represented by the domestic agencies they have established, must consider it fully legitimate that the Director General is fully empowered to take any decision with eventual implications to the main interest of the project. The domestic agencies and the Central Team, here in France, worked quite independently, and I strongly believe that they should work closely together and be placed on an equal footing, and that we need someone who can arbitrate.
Secondly, we need to set up an organization in such a way that people feel associated with the decisions taken. We will set up an Executive Project Board that will be chaired by the DG, and in which the seven domestic agencies will be represented by their heads. In this way we can discuss issues and take decisions. Previously, representatives of the domestic agencies had also the rank of Deputy-Director General, confusing the technical role they had in the ITER Central Team and their responsibility in representing their own country. Now the Central team consists only of technical people, that way we simplify the process of diffusion and discussion.
My last point is that I will ask the ITER Council to provide the DG with a reserve fund that will be fully available to implement the technical decisions taken by the Executive Project Board. We are now in a new phase, starting with the assembly of the test reactor, and we have to operate as a single organization, despite the fact that the domestic agencies will continue as legally separate organizations. Past delays and mistrust of the technology have sometimes resulted in funding problems. Is outreach sufficient?
Bigot: The questions are legitimate, and that is why we have to communicate. We have to answer these questions, and not only from the general public. A large part of my duties will be to keep in close touch with the members, with political leaders, congressmen, in such a way that they feel fully associated, fully understanding how we work, and what the possibilities of this technology are.
We have to demonstrate that we can deliver. ITER is not just a nice research project, it has to fulfill the expectation that in the long term fusion will be a reliable, sustainable, and environmentally friendly way to supply energy. What makes you optimistic that the ITER project will succeed in demonstrating this?
Bigot: I have now visited several of the members, and I realize there are many issues to be addressed. So far we are moving in the right direction. The more we advance with the project, the more we see what the difficulties are and we address them, and we find solutions. For example, a few years ago we did not master the technology for producing superconducting coils required for the large magnets. We are now proceeding with the manufacture, and we're satisfied with the results.
And it is encouraging that some members are considering the next step, after ITER. China, with its large population, expects that fusion technology will be able to provide a share of their energy supplies some time this century. We view their own plans for fusion energy as an endorsement of ITER. Read the full interview in the IEEE Spectrum.