Nuclear fusion

> ITER test fusion reactor
> Research on plasma-wall interaction with Plasmatron

Nuclear fusion is an energy source which could provide electricity on a large scale. The technology is safe, CO2 neutral and does not produce long-lived radioactive waste. SCK•CEN conducts research into nuclear fusion because a sustainable energy future is vital for current and future generations. In principle nuclear fusion copies the process that occurs at the core of the sun and stars.

The technology is still in its infancy, even after decades of research. The actual generation of energy from nuclear fusion on an industrial scale will probably not be feasible until the second half of this century. SCK•CEN plays an essential part in the global research centred on making a success of this enormous challenge. We have been involved in the European nuclear fusion programme since 1974.

Fusion reactors are different from traditional nuclear fission reactors in that they are intrinsically safe and do not produce long-lived radioactive waste. Almost unlimited supplies are available of the necessary fuels – deuterium and tritium. They can be produced from lithium, which is derived from seawater.

ITER test fusion reactor

The construction of the ITER test fusion reactor at Cadarache in the South of France is the first significant step towards nuclear fusion. ITER will be the last stage before the construction of the DEMO industrial demonstration model, planned after 2040.

Research centres throughout the world – including SCK•CEN – are joining forces to make this project a success. We are analysing the radiation impact on equipment, robotics and essential materials under extreme conditions. This is of great significance because in a nuclear fusion reactor materials are exposed to much more extreme conditions than in a traditional nuclear fission reactor. For instance, the nuclear fusion process creates neutrons with up to seven times more energy.

Moreover the first reactor wall is subject to an extremely high heat flux, higher even than that affecting space shuttles. The development of materials that can withstand such intense radiation and high temperatures represents a huge challenge. Our BR2 reactor is a unique installation in which we can simulate the neutron effects of nuclear fusion.

We are also focusing on techniques to recycle nuclear fusion fuel and limit radioactive waste. Moreover, throughout this process we take into account the socio/economic aspects of nuclear fusion. One important question is whether this technology will be sufficiently cost-effective as a future commercial energy source.

Research on plasma-wall interaction with Plasmatron

To achieve nuclear fusion the fuel – deuterium and tritium – needs to be heated to hundreds of millions of degrees Celsius. This produces a plasma, a hot charged gas that must not come into contact with the fusion reactor wall. That is why the plasma is kept contained within a ring-shaped magnetic field inside the installation. SCK•CEN is investigating the interaction between the reactor wall and the hot plasma. The behaviour of both is affected by many different factors.

This is a highly complex and virtually uncharted research field. Our plasma wall interaction research is conducted in conjunction with various scientific institutes, whereby each party is specialised in a particular domain. We are researching the impact of tritium and neutrons on the wall materials that will be used in future fusion reactors. To this end we use the ‘Plasmatron’, an installation which is unique in the world.

Nuclear fusion research 

More information on our Science Platform