Skip to Content

Why the World’s Largest Nuclear Fusion Project May Never Succeed

As cost overruns and delays plague the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, fusion startups are raising more capital.

The ITER project reached a critical phase last week, as a panel of experts convened to review the latest revised budget and time line to build the proposed fusion reactor delivered its findings. Launched in 2006, ITER has been plagued with delays and cost overruns as the challenge of bringing six countries—the United States, China, India, Japan, Russia, and South Korea—together with the European Union to build an experimental reactor has proved nearly insurmountable.

The latest schedule put forth by the project’s director, French nuclear physicist Bernard Bigot, calls for the machine to be switched on by 2025 and to actually achieve fusion only in 2035—a dozen years later than originally planned. The panel found that timing plausible but said that the latest budget, which would add another €4.6 billion ($5.3 billion) in cost overruns to the project, was unlikely to become available.

Construction of ITER is underway, but the fusion reactor won’t be switched on for another decade.

ITER’s troubles are striking at a time when private-sector fusion companies, such as General Fusion and Tri Alpha Energy, are attracting venture capital funding and making apparent progress in building prototypes (see “Finally, Fusion Takes Small Steps Toward Reality”). Southern California-based Tri Alpha, which has received nearly half a billion dollars in venture funding from a list of investors that includes Goldman Sachs and Vulcan, the investment fund of Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen, said in August that it had successfully confined the cloud of ionized plasma in which the fusion reactions will occur. And General Fusion, which has also received millions in private funding, last month was awarded another $12.75 million from the Canadian government.

The next few months will likely determine the fate of ITER. The U.S. Department of Energy is expected this week to release a report on the future of American participation in the project (the Senate has voted more than once to end U.S. funding for ITER, but those measures have died in the House). And ITER’s own governing council will decide in June on how the ambitious but ill-starred project will move forward. 

Keep Reading

Most Popular

individual aging affects covid outcomes concept
individual aging affects covid outcomes concept

Anti-aging drugs are being tested as a way to treat covid

Drugs that rejuvenate our immune systems and make us biologically younger could help protect us from the disease’s worst effects.

Europe's AI Act concept
Europe's AI Act concept

A quick guide to the most important AI law you’ve never heard of

The European Union is planning new legislation aimed at curbing the worst harms associated with artificial intelligence.

Uber Autonomous Vehicles parked in a lot
Uber Autonomous Vehicles parked in a lot

It will soon be easy for self-driving cars to hide in plain sight. We shouldn’t let them.

If they ever hit our roads for real, other drivers need to know exactly what they are.

crypto winter concept
crypto winter concept

Crypto is weathering a bitter storm. Some still hold on for dear life.

When a cryptocurrency’s value is theoretical, what happens if people quit believing?

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose WongIllustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at customer-service@technologyreview.com with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.