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International thermonuclear experimental reactor (ITER): A complex project webinar

Paul Johnson, SWWE Branch Committee Member, introduced this webinar, held on 3 February 2021. The Branch was delighted to hold its fifth Webinar event this year. Our speaker, James Sillars, senior project manager at Atkins, talked about the organisational and technical challenges of delivering the International Thermodynamic Experimental Reactor, (ITER).

James explained the background to the project. ITER is being built in southern France by the collaborative effort of 35 nations. It is the world’s largest tokamak, a magnetic (nuclear) fusion device that has been designed to prove the feasibility of fusion as a large-scale and carbon-free source of energy. The idea for an international joint experiment was launched in the 1980’s. The ITER Member states – China, the European Union, India, Japan, S. Korea, Russia and the United States are now engaged in a 35-year collaboration to build and operate the ITER experimental device, to bring the understanding of fusion technology to the point where a demonstration fusion reactor can be designed and built. The cost of the approximately 20 Bn Euro project is being shared by the members through value contribution rather than currency.

ITER is the largest fusion machine ever built. The tokamak is designed to operate with a vacuum 1 million times less dense than air and huge temperature differential; between the magnets which are operated at -269 C, and the plasma which is at +150 million C only 3 M apart. The technical and engineering challenges are unprecedented. ITER aims to demonstrate that it is possible to produce commercial energy from fusion. It is a test bed for key technologies to validate Q ≥ 10 (ratio of fusion power to input power).

James gave an overview of the 42Ha site and its component buildings, including the cryogenic plant to cool the magnets and the Radio Frequency Heating to heat the plasma.

Organisationally the EU’s Fusion for Energy organisation provides the largest contribution, the HQ is in Barcelona in Spain.

Atkins is part of the Engage joint venture which is the Architect Engineer responsible for the design and construction of the buildings and power supply. James is the building delivery leader (project manager) for the site infrastructure contract, an approximately 120M Euro (including other associated infrastructure), 6-year construction project.

There are plenty of challenges from the outset with a high cost and demanding schedule. It is a high profile with a lot of public and political interest from the 7 ITER member states. Technically its very uniqueness involves a lot of uncertainty, for instance, research is still being conducted to identify improved materials for key components. The challenges have continued during delivery with stakeholder misalignment, organisational issues, and project controls.

But when is goes right, collaboration brings the best teams together, promotes innovation, flexible processes, sharing lessons learned to improve and help others, well managed change and good project management practices. A strong culture develops pride and sense of achievement.

Effective stakeholder management is essential in a multicultural environment. The 7 principles of stakeholder engagement are essential: Identify, Seek to understand, Plan and prepare, Communicate in an appropriate way, Consult early and often, Encourage participation, Build relationships. But are not enough on their own for effective cultural engagement. Generally, we are not so familiar with other cultures norms and expectations such as deference to seniors. For example, in French culture staff would never disagree with their boss.

ITER project culture and common goals are very important to help overcome cultural misunderstandings. But you should be aware of typical areas of cultural difference, respect, understand and appreciate different ways of working, recognise individuals, teams and groups and understand what motivates them.

Managing technical complexity requires good organisation, engagement, clear roles and responsibilities, a clear life cycle with planning bite sized chunks, and effective governance and performance management, and effective information transfer that has identified the required format and needs of stakeholders. Kotters 8 steps to effective change management has proven really helpful. With stakeholders, learn to cut through the noise of irrelevant ones and focus on those that matter. Celebrate success with the team, build cohesion and be aware of cultural norms.

Going forward, testing and commissioning is ongoing and machine assembly has started. First plasma is planned for 2025 followed by 10 years to a fully sustaining plasma. ITER will prove the concept, which will lead to a demonstration reactor to produce commercial levels of energy in Japan in the future.

The webinar concluded with a lively and engaging Q&A session.

Martin Gosden
SWWE Branch Co-Chair

James has very kindly allowed his presented material to be made available for viewing. The webinar recording on YouTube is now available in our APM resources area and also embedded below for reference.

James Sillars is a senior project manager with Atkins and has been seconded to France to work on the ITER project, responsible for the delivery of the cooling water and buried infrastructure networks.

Previous presentations and webinars can be viewed on the APM YouTube channels

Follow @APMEvents for upcoming event information.

This event is suitable for professionals with any level of experience.

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APM Body of Knowledge 7th edition reference

Section Description

Organisational culture




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