Giant nuclear project fires up industry in Flanders


On a huge building site amid the lavender fields of Provence, a technical masterpiece is taking shape. The long-term goal of ITER is to demonstrate that nuclear fusion is a feasible source of energy. In the meantime, it’s giving Flanders’ technology and engineering industry a serious leg-up

Champions of the extremes

The ITER project is unique in more ways than one. It’s the only experiment in the world big enough to demonstrate that nuclear fusion – producing energy by merging atomic nuclei instead of splitting them – is a feasible source of energy. And its scale means it’s one of the few “megaprojects” where technical and economical issues trump politics.

The construction of the giant complex (pictured), in a remote area of the French region of Provence, started in 2007. The cost is estimated at around €15 billion, a sum that’s shared among seven partners: the EU (which accounts for 40%), the US, Russia, India, China, Japan and South Korea (10% each). If everything goes according to plan, the first atoms will be fused in 2020 – though many experts don’t expect this to happen before 2023.

The central component of the fusion reactor is the tokamak, a doughnut-shaped reactor vessel in which the plasma (ionised deuterium and tritium atoms) is trapped and heated up to 150 million° Celsius – 10 times hotter than the centre of the sun.

ITER’s scientists hope to achieve a net energy gain of 500 megawatts – 10 times the input energy required for heating and controlling the plasma. If they succeed, it’s proof that nuclear fusion is no longer a distant dream, and that it warrants a place in the energy mix of the future.

No castles in the air

But what if ITER fails to fulfil the main expectations? Have all these billions of euros gone to waste? Not if we look at the industrial return of the investment. “I often compare ITER with the race to the moon in the 1960s,” says Christian Dierick, ITER industry liaison officer at Agoria, the umbrella organisation of Belgium’s technology industry. “That gave an enormous boost to the American technology and engineering industry.”

ITER is first and foremost a strong accelerator of innovation

- Christian Dierick

The moon landing, he continues, “was nice, of course, but none of the companies that were involved believed that it would actually pave the way for more lucrative activities”.

So, maybe it’s right to say that the means justify the end? “There’s no point of course in building castles in the air,” says Dierick. “What the ITER project and all the companies involved in the construction of the reactor share is ambition. These companies want to push their boundaries. For them, ITER is first and foremost a strong accelerator of innovation and a major source of all types of technological challenges.”

Innovation is also boosted by the merely minor role politics is playing in the tender procedure used to construct the fusion reactor. Every component or service is allocated to one of the seven domestic agencies, which represent the seven partner governments that fund the entire project. But politics stops there. After all, each domestic agency puts out a call for tenders.

“The ‘best value for money’ principle reigns everywhere,” says Dierick, “and this makes the competition very tough.” 

Local involvement

For the EU, the organisation Fusion for Energy (F4E), based in Barcelona, controls the tender procedure. For example, seven of the nine sections of the tokamak are made by European companies (the remaining two are made in Korea). 

There’s a chance for everyone to get a piece of the pie

- Christian Dierick

“F4E usually sends out its tenders in the form of package deals,” says Dierick. “And yes, very often these big packages go to large industrial consortia or sometimes to individual big companies. But the consortia often engage smaller companies in turn for particular jobs that require real technical ingenuity. So there’s a chance for everyone to get a piece of the pie.”

To facilitate contact between those smaller companies and the larger industries, Agoria maintains a network of more than 50 Belgian firms that are willing to work on the fusion reactor and its infrastructures.

One of the members of this ITERBelgium network is the European branch of Mayekawa, a Japanese multinational that specialises in cooling compressors. The company, based in Zaventem, provides compressors to cool the superconducting magnets of the reactor down to minus 269°.

Another firm is Magyics, a spin-off from the University of Leuven that specialises in radiation-proof electronics, to be used inside the reactor vessel. A third is Sarens, best known for its supersized cranes found on construction sites all over the world. Sarens, based in Meise, will be responsible for putting some of the extremely heavy components of the fusion reactor into place.

Others companies involved include AIB Vinçotte of Vilvoorde and HTMS of Mechelen. “These are all examples of companies that provide solutions for extreme situations,” says Dierick. “The lowest temperatures, the heaviest weight, the most intensive radiation… You could say that we are the champions of the extremes.”

Photo courtesy ITER