At the heart of the ITER project, which will try to control nuclear fusion at work in the stars

Written by Steven mark
Transport of the superconducting magnet

It is 8:30 p.m. on this hot and windy evening of June 22, when the imposing convoy sets off from the port of Berre-l’Etang, 30 km from Marseille. Specially designed for this extraordinary transport, the 42 m trailer, 342 wheels and twice 1,000 hp of power, slowly crosses the semi-desert landscape of the salt flats that border the body of water. Solidly secured by thick chains, a huge package of 13 m by 11 m, covered with an orange tarpaulin and protected by a steel “cradle”, is the subject of all the attention from the operators preceding the contraption. It indeed contains a high-tech component intended for the ITER project, under construction 104 km away: a circular superconducting magnet called “poloidal field”, coming from China, 10 m in diameter and with a mass of 400 t.

Following the beacons of gendarmerie vehicles which secure the route, the trailer will take, for four nights, a route specially arranged by the ITER France Agency: crossing the A7 motorway previously closed, reinforced structures to support its weight , dismantled road signs to let him pass, and a planed cliff face in the Durance valley, on a too narrow passage. On June 26 at 2:15 a.m., the precious cargo entered the ITER site, after a maritime and road trip of three months and 10,000 km from the Chinese city of Hefei (Anhui province), where the coin was manufactured on European funds. Unloaded with infinite care by means of an overhead crane, the magnet “PF6” joins, in a large hall, the components which preceded it or which were manufactured on site.

On the whole of the vast 180 ha site located in the small town of Saint-Paul-lez-Durance, 2,100 people of many nationalities are active in normal times, a number reduced to 600 at the height of the coronavirus epidemic . In the hall dedicated to superconducting electromagnets, masked technicians are busy around the huge metal parts, tirelessly checking the connections and soldering down to the smallest detail. Why so much care? Because the slightest design error, defect in machining or assembly of a component of the machine under construction a few meters away could compromise its future operation. What the seven partners (China, European Union, India, Japan, South Korea, Russia, United States, 35 countries in total) of the ITER project, officially born in 2007 after decades of gestation, cannot afford.

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Steven mark

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