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Project managing a 400,000 tonne puzzle to help find a carbon-free future

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Deep in the French countryside, 800 miles from where the world’s leaders are gathering to broker a deal on climate change, an experiment called ITER is trying to point the way to a non-carbon future for the world. It is becoming an example of how rigorous project management can deliver real improvements in a complex situation of global importance.

The leaders of the world have gathered in Le Bourget to seek a legally binding global agreement on climate, the first such agreement in some 18 years of negotiation. Specifically the intention is seek agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in order to limit the global temperature increase to 2 °C above pre-industrial levels.

The hope is that COP21 – yes, the 21st meeting – does not end up with a burst of worthy speeches, the flourishing of promises, and then the gritty reality that people – the population of the USA in particular - won’t vote for the pain that may come from carbon restraint.

So it’s seductive to think of a solution to the world’s energy problems that might change the climate game totally. That solution is nuclear fusion.

Lord Rutherford said wryly “All science is either physics or stamp collecting" and when you look at fusion you can understand why he said it, even in jest. The potential is mindboggling, the engineering colossal in scale and difficulty, and the physics supremely challenging. Getting fusion to the point where we can derive electricity from it requires a long term game and significant amounts of money to be spent on a well-informed hunch.

Fusion has a history of excitement and expectation.  Back in 1958, Prime Minister Harold Macmillan was asked by the New Zealand Prime Minister how Project ZETA, an exploration of fusion, worked.  The British High Commissioner recalled:  “‘Well’, said Mr McMillan, looking vaguely about him, ‘You just take sea water and turn it into power’”. He paused for effect before adding: “We are pretty good at sea water”.

Macmillan was as right as a soundbite could be. The fuel for fusion comprises isotopes of hydrogen (deuterium and tritium) which can be produced from lithium in our oceans. A few tons of lithium would power a 1 gigawatt fusion power station for a year. The oceans have vast reserves of lithium, so there is literally no fuel problem. The potential safety problems are negligible compared to fission reactors.

More than 200 tokamaks – the engines of fusion – have been built to try sequentially to demonstrate that fusion can be produced, that it is scientifically robust and that it will ultimately be commercially practicable. Colossal technical difficulties arise from the need to produce very high temperatures and from the difficulty in extracting heat from the magnetically confined plasma in the tokamak so that turbines can be driven for power.

A consortium of nations—China, the 28 states of the European Union plus Switzerland, India, Japan, Korea, Russia and the United States— came together to build ITER, in an expensive and long term gamble to get fusion to the point where power plants could then be designed to use it for commercial use.

ITER will be the world's largest tokamak, ten times larger than any other such machine operating today. Construction is underway in Saint-Paul-ls-Durance, France.  It will be one of the most significant engineering and scientific projects this century. The tokamak alone will weigh 28,000 tonnes and it will sit within a structure weighing 400,000 tonnes.

At this stage, ITER is not expected to deliver more energy than it consumes until the 2030s and it will cost something in the order of 15-20 billion euros. The consortium behind ITER has held the article of faith that the physics and technologies built into ITER – Latin for journey – will lead the world to an astonishing benefit. But the project has been chewing its way through 200 million euros for every year that the timescale has slipped - and nobody can be totally sure that it will generate sufficient heat and then demonstrate the crucial “fusion burn” that will mark a leap forward towards some form of commercial application.

Meanwhile the Chinese are developing in parallel their own version which may catch ITER up, thanks to the vast resources which China can bring to bear.

France’s chief nuclear official, Bernard Bigot, took over as Director-General this year, with a conviction that stronger project management was needed at ITER.

At its meeting on 18-19 November 2015, the ITER Council recognised the work which the Director-General had already done to “improve the project culture” and noted that “project teams have been created in areas of critical importance”. An in-depth review had led to “much improved understanding of the scope, sequencing, risks and costs of the ITER project.”

There’s still a long way to go, and benefits realisation is still somewhat a matter of trust owing to the fragility of the physics. But, as you watch the leaders of the world promising change at COP21, spare a thought for the engineers who are piecing together a 400,000 tonne puzzle in the French countryside.

The project management community can watch, wait and learn from this extraordinary mission. ITER is becoming an example of how rigorous project management can deliver real improvements in a complex situation of global importance.

Julian Smith is Head of External Affairs at the Association for Project Management, the professional body for project managers. He writes here in a personal capacity and is not expressing a view on behalf of the Association. Follow him on Twitter @apm_xa.


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