Not On The Money – India’s Fusion Energy Ambitions May Be Hampered By Understaffing At The World’s Largest Fusion Reactor
India is part of a bold international effort to show sustainable power can be generated by nuclear fusion.
The Indian staff working at ITER will bring the expertise back to India to replicate the setup.
Sub-optimal staffing, though, may be setting us back in this bold pursuit.
India is part of an international effort to build an experimental nuclear fusion reactor that would generate ten times the energy that it is fed. However, it may be finding itself at odds with this equation for its own fusion energy ambitions — India risks reducing its gains from the ITER project because of insufficient staff deployment at the headquarters.
India joined the ITER collaboration in 2005 and has, since a year later, been one of the seven core partners in the project. It contributes 9.1 per cent of the total investment, the same proportion as the other members except for Europe, which contributes 45.6 per cent on account of hosting the reactor on French soil.
Most of the contribution by ITER members happens in kind — components, systems, equipment.
India has taken to its building role like fish to water. It has accomplished construction of key components of the nuclear machine. Perhaps the most significant has been the building of the cryostat — the outer vacuum shell for the thermonuclear reactor.
ITER director-general Dr Bernard Bigot called India’s work on the cryostat “an unprecedented engineering challenge and achievement”.
But India’s investment is not just components and cash. It is the human resources. In this regard, India seems to be falling behind. This is unfortunate because the expertise of the people on the job at ITER would be the most defining factor in India getting its own nuclear fusion reactor up and running — one of its goals for the project.
Union Minister Dr Jitendra Singh had said that the “prime objective of India’s participation in ITER is to use the knowledge to set up its own demonstration thermonuclear reactor in future”.
It is India’s experienced ITER staff that are best equipped to bring this “knowhow” back to India.
Not Enough Staff
ITER doesn’t have a quota for its international staff members except that it caps off the organisation’s total staff size at 1,050. It has 961 staff members employed at the French facility in Cadarache presently.
How much staff to keep on the premises is, to a large extent, the prerogative of the ITER member country. However, a member’s staff size should ideally be commensurate with its contribution to the project. For India, that would mean 9 per cent of the total ITER staff, or about 86 people.
But India has just 28 staff members at the Cadarache centre. That translates roughly to a touch under 3 per cent of all staff, and significantly lower than the ideal 9 per cent mark.
India has had higher staff representation in previous years, but the numbers are nothing to write home about.
“Looking back at past years, the percentage of Indian staff at ITER was slightly higher in 2017-2018, around 4 per cent to 4.5 per cent,” said the head of communications at ITER, Laban Coblentz.
Was it higher at some point before that? Apparently, no.
“Since the beginning of the project, it has never crossed even 5 per cent,” an Indian staff member at ITER organisation told Swarajya, on the condition of anonymity.
The suggestion that the Indian staff size was higher in the past is more alarming than reassuring. It suggests that the numbers are falling, even as ITER heads towards some of the more significant milestones.
ITER kicked off its machine assembly stage in late July this year with much fanfare. All the components, fabricated and supplied by member countries, are being put together to form the fusion machine in this phase.
The hope is that after the conclusion of the assembly phase, the “first plasma” will be generated momentarily in 2025, a major milestone for the project.
India, besides South Korea and China, possesses the engineering chops for this stage. The staff numbers should, therefore, ideally be higher.
Coblentz does point to an appreciably high overall Indian staff size by including Indians hired as part of the “ITER Project Associate” programme.
“India has taken strong advantage of the programme, and has the highest number of IPAs at ITER, 116,” says Coblentz.
“If we consider the combination of staff members and ITER Project Associates, India has 144 individuals working for the ITER organisation. This is about 12.4 per cent, and is the highest number and percentage of any non-European ITER member,” he adds.
However, the conceptual grouping of Indian ITER employees across staff members and project associates blurs the important distinction in roles.
ITER project associates are employees of companies that work with ITER and they generally only support the staff. They don’t have the authority of the staff and have limited scope in decision making. This is because they on non-core and non-managerial activities.
“Moreover, they do not sign any bond with the Government of India to serve back in India. So the government has no control over IPAs in bringing back any knowhow gained by them,” says the Indian ITER staff member.
The core staff, on the other hand, are nuclear scientists and engineers with at least 10 years of experience working with the Department of Atomic Energy. They are selected as per ITER norms, after rigorous international competition, with the made by no less than ITER’s director-general.
“Recruitment is merit-based. We don’t try to meet quotas. The person best suited for the role gets the job,” says Coblentz.
Unlike the project associates, the Indian ITER staff are obligated to bring their fusion expertise back to India. It is with their experience on the ITER machine that India can hope to set up its first commercially viable nuclear fusion plant in the future.
That is, after all, the eventual goal for not just India but every ITER member.
If the feasibility of nuclear fusion is proven by 2040, by generating electricity from the machine after it is plugged into the grid, the fusion device would have to be replicated in other member countries. If not for this outcome, the ITER international collaboration would make little sense.
So it is important that India builds up its ITER staff, currently at 28, or 3 per cent of total staff.
China On The Mark
China, another ITER member, has been aggressive with its staffing pursuits. It is one country that has maintained a staff size at the level of its contribution to the project, the ideal 9-10 per cent workforce mark.
Besides Europe, it is the only country to achieve that level.
Europe’s case is easy to understand. At about 60 per cent, it has a significantly higher staff representation, but that is largely because it is easier for the ITER organisation to hire locals.
China, though, is an outlier.
“I know that China has worked very hard to get to its 9 per cent staff share,” said Coblentz, recollecting that the Chinese staff size had risen in the last three years.
This phase of work, nuclear assembly and construction, is well suited for China, which has developed its building expertise over decades. But that is not just China’s strength. India has, in fact, had both large-scale infrastructure building experience and it has had a nuclear fusion programme running in the country since the 1980s.
India should, therefore, capitalise on this phase and raise its staff numbers. It should work with the ITER team to make progress on this front — ITER says it depends heavily on the assistance and insights of the member country for recruitment.
Besides getting more Indian staff on board, India should consider using the contract renewal route to make sure that at least some of the existing staff members stay on longer at the job, so that they experience more of the project life cycle.
As per ITER standard practice — it isn’t written into any agreement — staff members have work contracts that last for five years. These contracts, though, can be renewed. That decision rests with ITER and, to some extent, the government agency of the member country. India should consider renewals for its staff members, as also amending its policy that restricts how long staff can work at ITER.
In the past, one exception was made, says the Indian ITER staff member. “In 2014, one of the Indian ITER staff was given an extension of additional two years.”
This is an important consideration because the ITER project has a decades-long time frame. Its milestones are laid down on a timeline that crawls past 2025, 2035, and extends to 2040. In such a scenario, short ITER tenures of five years may not be sufficient to get a handle on the machine and the processes.
There is also the possibility of staff members ejecting at odd times in the project life cycle as and when they complete their five-year term. This also risks hindering the maintenance of a strong line of expertise across staff.
India is contributing roughly Rs 20,000 crore in cash and kind towards this mega project that seeks to bring the natural process powering the sun down to Earth in an artificial but sustaining and, hopefully, economical setup.
There is much to gain from the project in return. Chiefly, India is in search of evergreen energy sources, such as nuclear fusion, which can occupy the space being vacated by coal and gas, and secure our future energy needs responsibly.
In addition to nuclear fission power and the renewable energy of the sun and the wind, power generation by nuclear fusion would be an excellent addition to the energy mix.
India is already part of this bold endeavour and contributing ably. It could perhaps direct its focus towards ensuring more Indians at ITER are gaining the expertise necessary and for longer, so that one day in the not-so-distant future, India starts getting powered, even if to a small extent in the beginning, by nuclear fusion.
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