Tuesday, 25 June 2013

JET - 30 years old, and still state-of-the-art!

Today is the 30th anniversary of the first day of operation of the Joint European Torus, JET, and it is still the most successful fusion device in the world.  That's both a great opportunity to celebrate and a tragedy at the same time

During two days of celebration various eminent speakers told stories of their experiences and shared anecdotes.  Paul-Henri Rebut, the father of the JET project spoke of the friendly rivalry between the JET team and their American competitors in Princeton who built the machine called TFTR.  He explained that there had been a wager relating to a specific milestone in the operation of the two machines.  It was agreed that the team that first achieved a plasma current of one million amps for one second would host the other team for a celebration meal.  The losing team would travel across the Atlantic and bring the wine.  As a Frenchman, Rebut was glad to have won the wager but regretted the consequential need to drink Californian wine!

Other speakers spoke of the fun of operating the JET facility (which is still true) and yet the responsibility for delivering results to compensate for the expenditure (which is also true).   At least twice it was claimed that JET is the oldest operating tokamak in the world, but that is assuredly untrue.  As they could easily discover at www.tokamak.info, this honour probably goes to a machine that is currently called GOLEM, in Prague, having been moved and renamed three times.  It was built in about 1963, under the name TM1 (with the M translating from Russian as "small".)

However, nobody could doubt that JET has been the most successful.

The successful life of JET is indeed worthy of celebration, and with good fortune it will run for several years to come.  However, real progress in fusion depends on many challenges in addition to the obvious technical issues.  One of them is the recruitment, training and retention of the next generation of 'fusioneers'.  Given that the 'industry joke' says that fusion is 30 years away and always has been, some might be reluctant to join the field.  (I have blogged about that topic before - with optimism, here and here).

One of the speakers reported that recruitment of brilliant young students is still not difficult but retaining their enthusiasm in a field that moves so slowly can be more challenging.  This is made worse by the lack of that friendly spirit of competition that drove progress in the 1980s.

The tragedy that I mentioned at the beginning is that 30 years ago fusion scientists had big plans to build a machine to take over from JET and push the research forwards.  They designed a bigger and better machine in a project called "NET".  This 'Next European Torus' was a machine big enough to prove the success of fusion technology.  In USA, Russia  and Japan similar large projects were being proposed at the same time, and politicians and bureaucrats managed to resist these ambitions in every case.  How sad. How tragic.

Instead of doing NET we got ITER and lost 20 years. 

Is there any hope of regaining some competition for the international project ITER?  Officially and diplomatically the answer has to be 'no'.

However, China has been training fusions scientist at the rate of 100 per year for at least a decade.  Should we worry about that or should we celebrate the likely source of competition from China?  Certainly they have the ambition to take things forward and they have built an impressive machine called EAST.  One way or another, Europe needs to take fusion much more seriously and face up to the investment.  Instead of spending the equivalent of a pint of milk per European per year, in the spirit of standardising on sensible units of measurement couldn't we at least push that to the equivalent of a litre of beer, if not cognac? After all, by comparison the photo-voltaic power industry last year alone had a turnover of around 100 billion Euros. This is big money and comes from the pockets of the taxpayers too.

Neither technology is the perfect solution but the world needs both (along with the rest of the power portfolio) if an energy crisis is to be avoided.

No comments: