Thermonuclear fusion reactions power our Sun and the stars. However, the physics of nuclear fusion started becoming clear only in the 1920s when British astrophysicist Arthur Eddington suggested that stars burn bright due to the energy released from the fusion of hydrogen to form helium.
By the 1950s, scientists started looking at how to replicate the process of nuclear fusion on Earth. The hydrogen bomb was the result. Soviet scientists Andrei Sakharov and Igor Tamm proposed a less destructive approach in 1950: a magnetic trap to confine the hot plasma for fusion. This concept was the Tokamak, which became the most successful. Academician Evgeny Velikhov sold the idea of international cooperation in building a Tokamak fusion reactor to General Secretary Gorbachev.
In India, there were early efforts in high-temperature plasma research at the Tata Institute for Fundamental Research, abandoned in the 60s. However, Vikram Sarabhai picked up the threads again when he assembled a group in PRL in the early 1970s. The group established an experimental programme in plasma physics-oriented towards simulation space plasma phenomena. However, there was an unstated purpose of eventually acquiring the skills necessary for fusion research. In 1982, the Department of Science & Technology, realizing the importance of starting an indigenous fusion research programme, established a Plasma Physics Programme in PRL under its “Intensification of Research in High Priority Programmes”. As a result, PPP grew into the Institute for Plasma Research (IPR) in 1986. Within three decades, India acquired an international presence in Plasma Physics and its diverse applications.
At the Geneva Superpower Summit in November 1985, Secretary Gorbachev proposed the idea of a collaborative international project to develop fusion energy for peaceful purposes to U.S. President Ronald Reagan. Within a year, the European Union (Euratom), Japan, the Soviet Union, and the USA agreed to jointly pursue the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) design. Conceptual design work began in 1988, followed by detailed engineering design phases until the final design for ITER was approved in 2001. The People’s Republic of China and the Republic of Korea joined the Project in 2003.
E.U., which has been at the vanguard of ITER, began to encourage other countries to join. For India, this came when Sir David King, the Science Adviser to the British government, visited India in March 2004. In mid-2004, India made a formal request to join ITER. Indian Collaboration in ITER was mooted at the Indo-E.U. Summit in November 2004.
Following this, an ITER fact-finding mission visited the IPR and other centres in October 2004 to appraise India’s competence in fusion research and industrial capabilities relevant to ITER. They visited major industries in Mumbai and Bangalore to help the mission appreciate India’s advanced engineering and software strengths. The report of the ITER exploratory mission on India was considered at the 2005 October ITER negotiations meeting in Chengdu, China, which identified a series of steps that needed to be taken by the parties to enable a decision on India. After the next ITER meeting in Vienna on November 7, India was directed to apply formally to the ITER parties for joining the consortium.
The final meeting of negotiations took place in a bitterly cold December of 2005 in South Korea, in the Jeju island, a traditional destination for honeymooners. This meeting was to finalize the major points of the agreement on the joint implementation of the ITER project. The Indian delegation included N. Parthasarathy, our Ambassador to S. Korea. Key issues such as intellectual property rights, sharing of resources, cost-sharing and in-kind contributions were cleared. As a result, India was admitted as a full partner early in December at the ITER meeting at Jeju Island in Korea.
In a ceremony hosted by French President Jacques Chirac and the President of the European Commission M. José Manuel Durao Barroso, the ITER Agreement was officially signed at the Elysée Palace in Paris on November 21 2006 by Ministers from the seven ITER Members; this document established a legal international entity to be responsible for the building, operating, and decommissioning of the Project (1). Following the ratification of the international treaty by all Members, the ITER Organization came into being on October 24 2007.
After India acceded to ITER, I became a member of the ITER Council and the Science and Technology Advisory Committee (STAC) representing India. I was also a member of a subcommittee on Resource Estimation for ITER of the Management Advisory Committee (MAC). Fulfilling my mandate involved further trips. But now, the destination began to shift from Cadarache to other places. One meeting took place in June 2009 in Mito in Japan, a city one hour away from the Narita Airport by train. Mito has art shops resplendent with the prints of Hokusai, the great Japanese master who created the ‘The Great Wave’, woodblock prints of Mount Fuji, with a palette of indigo and Prussian blue.
The following year, we had another Council meeting in Suzhou, China, known for its pristine UNESCO-designated gardens dating back to the 11th century and its ancient waterways. Unfortunately, being a two-day meeting, we were busy with work and had little time for sightseeing.
STAC is the conscience keeper of ITER, ensuring that there is no compromise in the final scientific and technical objectives of ITER. However, to ensure this in ITER, where the politics is even more convoluted than the technology, is a Herculean task. Nevertheless, there is a full realization within the ITER system that Prof. Kaw, as Chairman of STAC did a great job in resolving many complex STAC issues and helping ITER formulate its technical specifications.
The assembly of the ITER machine has begun at the Cadarache site. Indian domestic agency ITER-India is committed to deliver 9 in-kind packages that includes Cryostat, Cryogenic System, In-wall Shielding, Cooling Water System, Electron Cyclotron R.F. Heating System, Ion-Cyclotron RF Heating System, Diagnostic Neutral Beam System, and Power Supplies to ITER (2). Most recently, the largest component of the ITER reactor, the Cryostat (the giant vacuum vessel), has been supplied by India. It was made in Gujarat by L&T and shipped to France; it weighs over 3,800 tonnes.
India is contributing resources worth about Rs 20,000 crore to this effort. In return, while contributing to less than 10% of the cost, India will get access to 100% of the intellectual property related to ITER. Thus, in future, a fusion energy reactor can actually be made in India.
Attending the ITER meetings was a great learning experience. These were memorable trips, though burdened with the serious task of ensuring that India’s interests were upheld. I saw how the national delegations, though fervently protecting their interests, always made magnanimous concessions when the overarching interest was to create a unique international project that would usher in the energy for the future. I also saw our struggles to establish an indigenous fusion research programme being vindicated when the international community assessed our strengths and invited us to join a select club of fusion-faring nations.