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Fusion Research Advances: In South Korea, a 70-Second Plasma Operation; in Europe, a Successful Plasma Start-Up

Dec. 19, 2016 (EIRNS)—South Korea announced last week that its superconducting tokamak, KSTAR, had achieved a new record for steady-state plasma operation of 70 seconds, it was reported on Dec. 14. Last week, at the Fusion Power Associates (FPA) meeting, the head of South Korea’s National Fusion Research Institute, Dr. Keeman Kim, reported on last year’s record of 55 seconds, which this now surpasses. The Institute released a statement saying that "this is a huge step forward for [the] realization of the fusion reactor."

One of the challenges of containing a fusion plasma, is preventing heat flux from accumulating on the plasma-facing components in the machine. Korea’s National Fusion Research Institute says that "various techniques" have been applied to deal with that challenge of protecting the walls and internal components of the tokamak.

It should be noted that it is not possible to compare results on different machines, such as the "more than 60-second" recent result from China’s EAST tokamak, with this 70 seconds from KSTAR. Each machine runs experiments under different conditions, testing different parameters, such as plasma temperature, magnetic field strength, external heat supplies, etc., and to test different materials and equipment. For example, although China’s EAST reactor has sustained a plasma for longer earlier this year, KSTAR’s results were obtained at higher plasma pressures and temperatures. Using different methods, and in some cases, tackling different problems, they all have steady-state operations as the end goal.

Also last week, while the Fusion Power Associates conference was underway in Washington, the WEST tokamak in France produced its first plasma on Dec. 14. This milestone was excitedly reported to the conference participants by Dr. Alain Becoulet, who is in charge of WEST from the French nuclear agency, CEA.

The WEST machine ("W" Environment in a Steady-state Tokamak, where the "W" is the symbol for tungsten), is the former Tore Supra tokamak. It has undergone extensive upgrades over the past three years, in order to be a test bed for developing technology for ITER. Its first experimental campaign will begin next year. The major research on WEST is in divertor structures, which are needed to remove particles that are flung into the chamber walls, heating and degrading them, and potentially disrupting the plasma. It has been named "WEST," as a way to complement China’s "EAST." The goal of all of these machines is to move towards a steady-state tokamak, which is what will be needed to produce commercial electricity from fusion.