The Quest for a Fusion Energy Reactor

by Weston M. Stacey, Oxford University Press, New York, 2010, 160 pages, ISBN 978-0-19-973384-2, $25 hard cover.

Reviewed by Bernard L. Cohen

The technology of thermonuclear fusion with magnetic containment progressed through construction of ever larger and more expensive devices until, by 1978, the magnitude and cost of future devices suggested need for a large international collaboration. This book is about the first phases of that collaboration, called the INTOR (International Tokomac Reactor) project, led by the U.S., USSR, European Community, and Japan. Author Weston Stacey led the U.S. effort.

The first half of the book is about the "Zero Phase," December 1978 to January 1980, for deciding on the scope of the project. Half of the remainder deals with Phase 1, extending until August 1981, for developing a conceptual design, and nearly all of the rest describes Phase 2A, 1981-1988, for refining some details of the conceptual design but mainly keeping the program alive while trying to work out severe political problems that threatened to halt further progress until the problems were suddenly overcome by a Gorbachev (USSR) initiative at a summit meeting with Reagan. The book concludes with a four page epilogue on how INTOR was transformed into ITER (International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor), construction of which began in 2009 at Cadarache (France) with scheduled completion in 2018.

INTOR consisted of a series of international workshops, mostly in Vienna with some support from International Atomic Energy Agency, at which various specific problems were laid out to be studied as "homework" by each of the four participating nations. The results were reported at the next workshop where differences among the four presentations were reconciled or re-assigned for further study and reporting at the following workshop. The U.S. homework was spread among many groups, with frequent meetings among them.

For example, the zero phase for determining the scope of the project originally divided the problems into plasma heating, magnets, plasma confinement, impurity control, plasma stability control, start-up, burn, shut-down, energy storage and transfer, fueling and exhaust, tritium production and storage, materials, first wall, shielding, mechanical design, remote maintenance, blanket, diagnostics, cost and schedule, and facilities and personnel. After several cycles of studies, reports, and workshops, a 650 page Phase Zero final report was published including contributions from over 500 engineers and physicists. It recommended a device for demonstrating the physics and engineering components needed for a commercial reactor (without electricity generation) and serving as a test facility for tritium breeding.

The book deals with the many problems in arriving at consensus agreements. Each participating country had its own program with ambitions for constructing a competing, albeit less elaborate device, so INTOR participants had difficulty (and were frequently unsuccessful) in selling these agreements to national authorities such as the U.S. Department of Energy. There were various frictions between and within the national groups. The author describes social activities that succeeded in smoothing these, including details of the coffee breaks, restaurants, and banquets utilized. Eventually, a spirit of international camaraderie and trust took root among the participants, which in itself was one of the most important achievements of the INTOR program.

This book contains little of value for a reader interested in technical issues, aside perhaps from very brief discussions of alternative methods for plasma heating and of diverters for keeping impurities out of the plasma. There are a few diagrams which are small and condensed, with marginally adequate explanation. Appendix B gives tables of contents of INTOR reports which contain the technical details, and Appendix D lists the 65 Tokomaks in the World with their dimensions and properties. But the book is essentially about personal and political relationships. Long lists (in one case covering nearly two pages) of participants at each meeting and their professional connections are given. The author earned my admiration for how he managed those relationships. Personally, I was much impressed with the progress and success of the often maligned idea of "design by committees," especially committees of such diversity.

The book is short and easy to read. It describes rapidly moving activities, which maintains interest and avoids boredom. I would recommend it to anyone for whom the problems of organizing and developing a large international scientific project is of interest.

Bernard L. Cohen
Physics Dept.
University of Pittsburgh
Pittsburgh, PA 15260

These contributions have not been peer-refereed. They represent solely the view(s) of the author(s) and not necessarily the view of APS.