‘Europe is leading the international fusion effort’

Tony Donné – EUROfusion Programme Manager

Tony Donné has been Programme Manager of the EUROfusion research consortium since June 2014. Trained as a physicist, he obtained his PhD degree at the Free University of Amsterdam in 1985 for work in the field of nuclear physics. He joined fusion research right after obtaining his PhD and has devoted a substantial part of his scientific career to the design and use of plasma diagnostics at a large range of fusion devices. At the Dutch research institute DIFFER, he coordinated Dutch fusion research as director of fusion science 2014 and served as acting director in 2010. Tony Donné coordinated the international diagnostics activities for ITER for over 10 years and since 2020 he chairs the Coordination Committee of the International Tokamak Physics Activity under the auspices of the ITER project.

-Since 2014, EUROfusion has coordinated efforts to develop fusion energy in 28 European countries. This is key for advancing in a field which requires maximum cooperation and minimum desires of individual prominence. How is an organisation which gathers over 150 laboratories, universities, and industry throughout Europe run?

-The basis of EUROfusion is the European Fusion Roadmap, which is the result of a detailed analysis of the main scientific and technical challenges that need to be tackled to build a working fusion power plant. The Roadmap is a useful tool as it defines the priorities of the EUROfusion programme. In its implementation, we have divided the programme into 24 specific work packages that are led by Project Leaders who coordinate the EUROfusion activities in a specific field. Often these work packages involve scientists and engineers from many different laboratories from all over Europe. The Project Leaders work fairly autonomously but are coordinated to reach the common goals by the Programme Management Unit in Garching, which consists of only about 45 people. Fusion is an integrated effort, so we make sure that the Project Leaders are well aware of each other’s work and also on the impact their own work has on that of other projects. The distributed nature of the work of EUROfusion is challenging, but during the Horizon 2020 framework period (2014 to 2020) we have demonstrated that it is manageable through proper coordination.

-The EUROfusion program has short-, medium- and long-term objectives. Since 2013, which are the most significant advances in the roadmap towards fusion energy?

-One of the most visible advances is that we have organised and completed a Gate Review that officially passes DEMO from its Preconceptual Design Phase to the Conceptual Design Phase of the European demonstration fusion power plant DEMO. This was a major achievement which involved years of work from many individuals: project leaders, coordination officers, committee members, etc. The recommendations of the Gate Review panel were in general very positive and have given support to the directions we have chosen for the project. A very important recommendation has been the setting up of a DEMO Central Team to ensure the rapid convergence towards a feasible DEMO plant architecture and to better coordinate and steer the R&D in the work packages.

The results during DEMO’s Preconceptual Design Phase will be soon published in a special issue of the journal Fusion Engineering and Design.

In the area of Tokamak Exploitation, a very important step forward has been the joint exploitation of all EU tokamaks by a single team of Task Force Leaders. This made it possible to first set the priorities in the research topics and proposals, and subsequently choose the best tokamak for specific experiments. The experiments provide the basis for finding solutions and optimisations for both ITER and DEMO. Many experiments have led to beautiful results. For instance, we have discovered that fast particles can stabilise turbulence and thereby reduce heat and particle transport out of the plasma; and we have developed plasma scenarios with good confinement and with no (or very minor) unwanted energy disruptions from Edge Localised Modes.

Another highlight of the Horizon 2020 period has been the first operation and first campaigns of the Wendelstein-7X stellarator, that have exceeded all expectations we had at the beginning. The stellarator is a device to confine a plasma, with some advantages above the tokamak. However, it is technically more complex and therefore not yet developed to the same level of maturity.

-Which has been to date the European Union’s contribution to the race towards fusion? What will the roles of the European fusion laboratories be in the upcoming international experiments?

-Europe is leading the international fusion effort. ITER is built on European soil and Europe contributes about 46% of the ITER construction costs. This is worth it as the benefit (in terms of return-on-investment) to both European research and industry is substantial. EUROfusion covers all research aspects needed to come to a fusion reactor based on the magnetic fusion concept, including plasma science, technology, materials research, artificial intelligence, etc. EUROfusion is, in terms of number of member states involved, the largest European research organisation.

It is interesting that although the programme set up by EUROfusion is based on competitive calls, all national laboratories and universities have found their specific areas of expertise. Via EUROfusion, countries with a small fusion programme are able to join experiments on facilities in other countries. This ideally prepares Europe for participation in the future generation of international fusion experiments at ITER. In fact, we are – together with F4E (Fusion for Energy – our sister organisation that manages all aspects of engineering and construction of fusion research facilities) – already participating in the commissioning and exploitation of the joint Japanese-European tokamak JT-60SA in Japan. And I do expect in a similar way that it will be via EUROfusion that in the future, many countries participate in the IFMIF-DONES exploitation.

-JET, the largest tokamak in the world, is EUROfusion’s flagship device. Why is it so significant and how has it contributed to the advance of science and fusion technology?

-JET is unique in many aspects. It is the only device that has exactly the same wall material as ITER, it is fully remote handling compatible, it is closest in size to ITER, and it is the only device in the world that can operate with the high-performance deuterium-tritium fuel mixture that will be used in future fusion power plants. It is for these reasons that JET can do unique experiments in preparation for ITER that cannot be done by any other tokamak. While this interview is conducted, we are in the middle of a full tritium campaign at JET, which is very important to better understand the isotope scaling underlying several of the physics processes. We are about to start a second deuterium-tritium campaign this summer, which will be the first time that we are able to study the combination of an ITER-like wall with deuterium-tritium operation and that we can test many of the nuclear technologies and neutron and gamma diagnostics for ITER. Also, recently JET has performed tests with a Shattered Pellet Injector to suppress beams of runaway electrons generated by disruptions, which has given important new insights for ITER.

-EUROfusion also devotes part of its resources to train students and scientists in nuclear fusion. Is this an attractive field for young researchers? Is it hard to attract talent when the tangible results, replicating on Earth the energy of the Sun and stars, are not expected in a short period of time?

-Nuclear fusion is a very exciting field and since the start of the ITER project we have seen a worldwide enhanced interest of young students and researchers wanting to get involved in fusion. In the last decades specifically fusion master programmes have been initiated at various universities. Furthermore, at EUROfusion we have set up two granting schemes called the EUROfusion Engineering Grant and EUROfusion Researcher Grant to attract highly-talented scientists and engineers to our programme.

In the same period, we have also seen many privately funded enterprises that started to work on different fusion concepts. These companies have very aggressive programmes and generally promise a working fusion power plant on a much shorter time scale; however, this comes with a much higher risk of not achieving this goal as compared to most publicly funded programmes. Nevertheless, these companies have grown and now have hundreds of employees.

I think that today, fusion is a booming field. The underlying science is highly interesting, and fusion has the potential to yield a sustainable energy source for the future so as to be able to replace fossil fuels and complement other clean energy solutions, in particular solar PV and wind. So given all this, it is not difficult to attract talent to the field.

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