Addressing ITER’s great challenges

Pietro Barabaschi (IO DG), Massimo Garribba (DGENER DDG) and Marc Lachaise (F4E Director) during the discussion at the ITRE Committee ©F4E

Following an invitation by the European Parliament Committee on Industry, Research and Energy (ITRE), Pietro Barabaschi, Director-General of the ITER Organization, Massimo Garribba, Deputy Director-General of the European Commission Directorate-General for Energy, and Marc Lachaise, Director of Fusion for Energy (F4E) provided a detailed update of the status of the ITER project and the European contribution.

Pietro Barabaschi explained some of the current difficulties of the project characterised by quality issues in some of the components delivered, delays and overruns in construction contracts, loss of trust with the French nuclear authorities, lack of staff motivation due to an overoptimistic schedule and unachievable objectives and finally the lack of expertise in certain technical areas due to a generational gap. A comprehensive action plan has been put into place to successfully address these difficulties: a number of technical reviews are being performed, organisational changes including a matrix structure and integration with the ITER Domestic Agencies are being implemented, together with efforts to restore confidence with the nuclear authorities and enhance transparency with the stakeholders. A new realistic baseline is expected to be announced during the second half of 2024. Pietro Barabaschi was adamant that ITER will achieve its objectives once completed and welcomed the proliferation of private investment in fusion as technical innovations stemming from different sources will certainly benefit the overall development of fusion. The ITER DG insited that ITER can be successfully constructed and operated, highlighting the example of JT-60SA (the biggest tokamak currently) which was just completed and will be inaugurated on 1 December 2023.

Massimo Garribba, Deputy Director-Gerneral of DGENER, provided details on the Commission strategy to redress the project by concentrating their efforts on rebuilding the structures of the ITER project through a new management and supporting further integration with the domestic agencies. He explained that the EU budget available for ITER will be affected by the delays of the project and some money under the current Multiannual Financial Framework will be returned to the budgetary authority.

In relation to the EU contribution to the project, Marc Lachaise, provided information on the F4E priorities in support of the ITER project to ensure timely delivery on critical projects, to support the integration of project teams with IO and make staff available, to assist in the development of a realistic and commonly owned schedule with IO, and finally, to reorganise F4E to improve efficiency and performance on the basis of a renewed long-term vision, in dialogue with staff and their representatives. The F4E Director underlined that “at the same time that we are building ITER, we are helping to develop the European fusion industrial supply chain and create jobs – since 2007 we have signed more than €6 billion of contracts with more than 900 companies & research organisations in 24 European member states.”

F4E Director
Marc Lachaise, F4E Director, addressing the ITRE Committee. ©F4E

The ITRE committee expressed its continuing support for the project and highlighted its significance in the fight for climate change and for the European strategic autonomy in energy. In replying to questions from MEPs Christian Ehler (German, Christian Democrats), Tsvetelina Penkova ( Bulgarian, Socialist), Christophe Grudler (French, Renew Europe), and Franc Bogovic (Slovenian, Christian Democrat), the ITER DG, ENER DDG and F4E Director insisted on the continuing commitment of the ITER members to construct and operate ITER, the superior relevance of the ITER technology in relation to private fusion initiatives, the possible contribution of Artificial Intelligence, and the important industrial and economic benefits for Europe.

All three invitees took the commitment to continue the exchanges with the European Parliament Committee and provide regular updates on the status of the project in full transparency. The overall sentiment was well summarized by the F4E Director in his closing remarks: “the challenges are great but we have the conviction that by working together – the Commission, the ITER Organization and F4E – we can overcome them and slowly but steadily bring the ITER project back on its rails”.

Pietro Barabaschi, ITER DG, and Massimo Garribba, DGENER DDG, during the ITRE discussion. ©F4E.