Ángel Ibarra interview, leader of the IFMIF-DONES project

– The IFMIF-DONES project addresses nuclear fusion. Which is the exact aim of this project?

– The aim of the project is to qualify the materials to be used in the DEMO fusion reactor. The harsh environment in a fusion reactor (vacuum, temperature, radiation…) cannot be found in any facility presently available. Even the fusion plasma reactors presently in exploitation or under construction (like ITER) cannot be used to test the behaviour of materials and components at the end of life in a real fusion reactor. So, the objective of IFMIF-DONES is to build and exploit a facility, at a limited cost, that is able to test the performance of the materials in an environment similar to the one in a fusion reactor although in a relatively small volume.

– Will IFMIF-DONES be a solution to the current energy problem?

– For sure no. IFMIF-DONES will contribute to pave the way to use fusion reactions as an energy source, but it will be a step (a critical one) in a long way.

– IFMIF-DONES is part of a broader and more ambitious international project to study the possibilities of nuclear fusion. Could you describe the global framework of research on nuclear fusion?

– Using nuclear fusion as an energy source has been for a long time one of the areas in which a stronger international collaboration has taken place. Even during the “cold war” some collaboration took place between US, Russia, EU and Japan. Presently, the most important project in this area (the so-called ITER project focused on the construction of a fusion plasma experiment that will demonstrate that we are able to manage the fusion reactions in a controlled and safe way) is an international collaboration of seven big partners involving more than half of the world population.

After the developments that took place during the last decades, the current steps to reach the fusion reactor target are mainly two: building the ITER project and building a DEMOstration reactor. DEMO will be able to produce electricity from fusion reactors in a long-term scenario. In order to be able to build DEMO, it will also be necessary to build IFMIF-DONES.

– Which is the role of Spain and of IFMIF-DONES in the research of fusion as an energy source? Which will be the specific role of Granada if the particle accelerator is finally constructed there?

– Spain has been involved in the European fusion program since 1986 and the representative Spanish contribution has been the TJ-II machine, the biggest stellarator plasma experiment in Europe during many years. In the last few years, the Spanish contribution has grown very significantly in the so-called “technology” aspects. It has been significantly involved in the materials programme, in the DEMO design activities, especially in those aspects related to the breeding blankets components and pushing for the design and the construction of the IFMIF-DONES project initially through the Spanish participation in the IFMIF/EVEDA project and nowadays based on the proposal to host IFMIF-DONES in Granada.

The role of the IFMIF-DONES facility in Granada will be, as already mentioned, the qualification of the materials to be used in a fusion reactor and the development of a database of the effects of fusion neutrons on the engineering materials properties. Besides this, due to the uniqueness of the facility, it will also be useful to validate materials modelling codes and it will be able to provide experimental capabilities relevant to other scientific and technological areas, such as nuclear physics, electronics, medicine, etc.

– Why was Granada chosen as the site to install this facility? What does Granada have to offer to this project?

– Granada was chosen due to its unique social and scientific environment. When we were looking at different sites, Granada was the only place where we found a unanimous welcome coming from the university but also from the industry and the administration. This made very easy to solve all the different and difficult problems that we had and we will have in the future.

– Japan is also working to obtain this project. Is Japan a strong competitor?

– This sentence is not correct. Japan is not a competitor, but it is collaborator. We work with Japan in all the activities related to the design and the validation of the prototypes of the different components of the facility. Japan is also planning to maybe build a similar facility in the future, but there is no problem in having two similar facilities: there is more than enough work for both of them ahead of us. At some moment in time we thought that we were competing, but today we have learnt that it is much better if they help us to build IFMIF-DONES in Granada and later on we will help them to build their facility in Japan.

– While the candidacy of Granada is evaluated, the DONES-PreP project is ongoing. Which are the main objectives of this project?

– The main objective of the DONES Preparatory Phase project is to promote the discussion between all the possible partners interested in being involved in the IFMIF-DONES project in order to reach an agreement on the legal aspects, the governance and the contributions from all of them. Our aim is to have a draft of an international agreement by the second half of 2021.

– Which milestones have been reached this year and which are expected in 2020?

– Main milestones during 2019 were related to the start of the DONES Preparatory Phase project and the agreement with the Spanish Authorities to establish a Consortium that will be in charge of the Spanish contribution to the project and to contribute with some amount of money to start activity on-site even if the decision about the project is still no taken.

During 2020 our objective is to request the Environmental Impact licence, to start the construction of some auxiliary buildings in which we will install some relevant laboratories and to start a Project Office in Granada.

– Could you define the impact IFMIF-DONES will have in the province of Granada and in Spain?

– IFMIF-DONES will be a unique facility in the world and will be running during a very long period of time. This means that Granada will be the world reference for the development of fusion materials, but also for accelerator technologies. Besides this, the needs of the facility will induce that a number of different high-technology companies will establish delegations in Granada increasing the technology capabilities of the Granada region in some specific areas.

Hence, the impact of IFMIF-DONES in the province of Granada will be really remarkable in terms of high qualified employment and investments, as well as source of incomes in different sectors, even those not directly related to science and technology.

– Nuclear facilities can create mistrust amongst the population. Does this facility entail any type of risk?

– First of all, IFMIF-DONES is not a nuclear facility: it is a radioactive facility. It will produce a lot of neutrons, but taking into account that they are produced using an accelerator, as soon as the accelerator is switched off, the neutrons disappear.

In any case, as any other industrial facility, IFMIF-DONES has some risks (mainly due to the presence of some small amounts of Tritium in the facility), but the design of the facility is being developed very carefully and the impact on the public or the environment is foreseen to be negligible even in the case of most extreme accidents.