ITER and building a fusion supply chain

ITER and building a fusion supply chain

Sep 22, 2023

By Melanie Windridge & Cyd Cowley

In this September's member Q&A session, Roberto Hinojosa, Acting Section Leader for Building & Construction Project Control at ITER, discusses the role of supply chains, collaboration and project management for the ITER tokamak.

Roberto is the Group Leader for Project Control Central Services in the ITER Organisation, in the South of France. In this role, he is responsible for the processes of Project Management disciplines such as Scheduling, Cost Estimating and Performance Reporting.

We have three of the key insights from this event to share...

1. ITER has partners not suppliers

ITER is not a company nor a national lab. They don't report to a single government. It is an international collaboration between China, the European Union, India, Japan, Korea, Russia and the US. As such, rather than suppliers, ITER has partners.

Roberto outlines how this works:
“For example, a vacuum vessel sector was sent to us from Korea. We did not pay for that; we don't have a contract with the Korean company that will give us that component. The Korean government is paying for it—they have a contract with the company that built it, they paid for the shipping, they paid for everything that showed up on our doorstep.”

This is not the most cost-effective way of managing the project. There is little accountability, which can be costly and lead to delays. For example, Roberto can’t offer incentives or threaten penalties to keep delivery times on track.

Roberto says: “It's not a typical supplier-client relationship in order to get each part built. That makes the management of the logistics, the priorities, a bit of a struggle that you don't typically see out there [in industry].”

But why would ITER be built in such an inefficient manner? The simple answer is nobody wanted to foot the bill. Instead, ITER is an international collaboration where numerous governments need to be willing to put significant money into it over an extended period of time. Spreading the work among the different members was the hook—spending money locally, investing in local technology and investing in local industry.

Roberto: “The way it was shared is in part to blame for some of the inefficiencies of ITER. But, on the other hand, it is a success story of the negotiation to actually agree in the beginning and still, today, to keep funding this project.”

2. ITER is still under construction but is already bringing benefits to industry

Lessons learned from ITER are now feeding into next-generation tokamaks such as the DEMO projects, of which multiple are being designed around the world.
Benefits from ITER have already fed into industry. Roberto highlights superconductivity research and manufacturing, where advances can be applied to “MRI machines and more efficient and better ways to build superconducting magnets.”

Companies have had to develop tools to do jobs with micro millimetre precision; and even welding techniques have advanced. Partners around the world are working to determine what is the optimal way to weld things like the vacuum vessel to get the required precision and shape in the environment of ITER.

Finally, Roberto discusses ITER’s contribution to developing electronics for harsh environments, stating:

“We've done a lot of work in qualifying electronics for harsh environments…thinking of the environment around the machine and the radiation doses, neutrons and all of that. But it applies to other things like space, for example. So all of those things have been developed for ITER and now are being used by the companies that work with us for their other clients or for their other projects.”

3. How much does ITER cost? We really have no idea!

ITER has partners not suppliers. The work on all the different pieces that make up ITER—from the magnets to the lithium test blankets to the vacuum vessel and all the other numerous bits—was spread around the various countries involved so that they could invest in their local industry and build their fusion capabilities.

Roberto says: “So if we go back to how the work was spread, people made a big shopping list of every component that they could imagine that we would need for each and every system for ITER. And in the next column they put a number, a value; how much they thought that thing would cost back in the day when they came up with the transaction. That came out to a total nominal value for ITER.”

Roberto outlines how this original cost was to be split:

“As the host, Europe would be contributing 45% of the costs, and everybody else 9% of the cost. That was based on this on this table—on notional estimates of what it would take to build ITER, back in 2005, I think, when they did those numbers, or it might have been even earlier.”

That table has never been updated, and the agreement amongst all parties is that they will deliver their pieces whatever the costs are.

Roberto continues: “We know for a matter of fact that it is a much bigger number. We know, for example, that the amount of money that Europe spent constructing the buildings is orders of magnitude over whatever was defined in that original table. But we don't know exactly what the number is. And we know it's the same thing for any of our partners but, of course, not all of the markets are the same, labour costs aren't the same, material costs are the same, and so on and so forth.”

When people give estimates of the cost of ITER, they take the number that the European Union publishes as their investment in Fusion for Energy, which is supposed to be 45%, and extrapolate from there.

Of course, the local governments know exactly how much they're spending but, currently, that's not public information. Maybe one day in the future, when it’s all done and we’re powering our lights with fusion electricity, somebody will do a tally of what was actually spent on ITER.

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