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Testing the road to ITER

by Bruno Van de Casteele

September 15, 2013

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Donate You may have heard of ITER, the international collaboration project to build a huge experimental fusion reactor in the south of France. As Wikipedia indicates, its goal is to increase our understanding of nuclear fusion, in order to be able to produce electricity. That last point is not part of ITER, this is "just" an intermediate step, although the experiment should be able to produce more energy than goes into it. In contrast to the topic discussed in this post by Brian Dunning, it is solid science and not another Perpetuum Mobile machine.

It is of course a project with a lot of potential, and I have a sort of irrational love for this "free" and clean energy source. It is very unlikely that I will see all or any electricity produced by this source during my lifetime (and I'm only in my thirties), but still it is the kind of project that I love to see succeed. But it isn't cheap. Wikipedia reports a full cost of 16 billion USD over thirty years, and since thereactor is not even in place yet, I'm sure it will cost even more.

Part of the cost is linked to the difficulty in construction. One overlooked aspect of that is to get all material in place in Cadarache, in the south of France. Specialized and heavy equipment will arrive by boat, and will then have to transported about 100 km over the roads. As some equipment is huge or heavy (sometimes 900 tons including the vehicle), it is clear that it cannot just be transported like that.

In fact, France has been busy for over five years nowupgrading and adapting many bridges, roundabouts and roads, including the deviations that will be in place during transport. All those investments are now coming to an important milestone next week. During the nights from 16 to 20 September, a self-propelled trailer filled with a test charge of 600 tons in 360 concrete blocks will follow the route and test each infrastructure point three times. You can see a small video of that trailer here.

All this will of course involve a huge amount of manpower. From the 80 police officers to manage the transport and the deviations to the over 200 people that will monitor the infrastructure for possible sagging or other defects, it is a huge mobilisation of resources. Apart from that, it is of course also a test to see how the convoy can fluidly move without impacting traffic too much. Oddly enough, as the newsletter from AIF (Agence ITER France) points out (in French), this passage is modeled after the Tour de France cycling event, moving like a "bubble" that cannot be interrupted but that allows for traffic to cross the itinerary before or after it. So sport has some use after all ...

On the 16th and 19th, public viewing areas are available inBerre l’Etang and Peyrolles-en-Provence , and you can also follow the advancement from a traffic perspective on Twitter. If you are in the neighbourhood, I'd suggest to go see this and please let us know via the comments how it went.

In all, the testing of road infrastructure seems perhaps a less glorious part of this international scientific experiment. However, I feel that it nicely illustrates the complexities and technical challenges of this groundbreaking project, and also helps to explain why it costs so much. I hope the tests go well, but I'm really waiting for 2020, to see the first results of ITER in action.

by Bruno Van de Casteele

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