Michel Claessens, ITER: a systemic drift, 2022

Like all major technological projects, the experimental nuclear fusion reactor ITER has reached its point of no return: too much money has already been invested to stop the project, difficulties are multiplying and more and more money is needed to simply continue. In these conditions, the management, caught between these contradictory injunctions, seeks to reinforce its hold on « image » and scrape by on safety… Here is the testimony of the former director of communication of the ITER Organization.

 

Ladies and Gentlemen Members of the European Parliament, Dear colleagues,

Thank you for inviting me today as a whistleblower. We have seen beautiful photos of the ITER worksite. They show the best of science and technology. We are preparing the energy of the future.

The reality of the project is very different.

Today, the colleagues I meet in Cadarache and Barcelona talk to me, face-to-face, about unbearable stress and pervasive fear – fear of being displaced, fear of losing their job or fear to have to execute a decision against the interest of the project. They are afraid to speak and be recognized. There is, in this cutting-edge project, an “omerta”, a law of scientific silence.

What I am to tell you is based on facts, publications and first hand testimonials.

Everything is in this file. I speak today to help the European Union regain control of this project and to support all the colleagues who work and have worked for ITER.

I was director of communication at ITER from 2011 to 2015 and “ITER policy officer” at the European Commission between 2016 and 2021. So, I know ITER from the inside. I am convinced it is an exemplary project. However, in all my professional life, I never experienced what I experienced at ITER. I worked in research, in industry, in the media, I have been a spokesperson to European Commissioners. So, I am used to work in stressful environments.

ITER colleagues underline the poor decision-making by some managers, the overwhelming political dimension of the project and the willingness of the hierarchy to “save face” at all costs. When they were recruited, they were told that ITER is a scientific project; they discovered a political project management. This is also my experience.

On March 28, 2015, three weeks after his appointment, Mr Bigot asked me to come to his office: “We don’t know each other, he told me, but we are not going to work together. It has nothing to do with your competences.” He broke my contract illegally and bluntly. The meeting lasted 2 minutes. I was then seconded to F4E. However, its managers ignored me. Then I was reassigned in Brussels.

There is much more serious. Unacceptable deviations concern personnel and radiation protection.

The staff first. How to work serenely in an environment marked by illegal terminations, illegally modified contracts, waves of resignations, misinformation (about reactor performance, delays and costs), and recently a suicide attempt in Cadarache (a Korean scientist, father of 3)?

The reality is that ITER Organization has imposed a “management by fear” that percolated in all departments, in all agencies and even in fusion organizations.

We are facing a drift of the whole system. Fear has taken precedence over science. It is therefore not surprising that the same problems happen in Barcelona. Mr. Bigot likes to blame Mr. Schwemmer for the European delays and Mr. Schwemmer likes to distance himself from the decisions made by Mr. Bigot.

In reality, everything is linked. The project management is collective. In EPB, the Executive project board, ITER Organization takes the decisions with the 7 domestic agencies. Freshly appointed in 2015, Mr. Bigot used to say: “I will be the Director-General of the ITER project, not just of the ITER Organization.”

Next, radiation protection. You will find detailed information in my report. Due to errors in the design and construction of the walls of nuclear buildings including the reactor, the effective biological protection will be 30% less than that projected. ASN also says in its letter of January 25, 2022: « The elements transmitted do not make it possible to demonstrate control of the limitation of exposure to ionizing radiation, a major issue for a nuclear fusion installation and […] for the workers around the nuclear buildings.”

Let’s face it. The situation is very serious.

– Did you know that the assembly of the reactor is currently on hold? I quote the letter of ASN dated 25 January 2022: “For the time being, I urge you not to take any action […] concerning the sectors of the vacuum chamber affected by dimensional non-conformities. […] An in-depth design review seems to have to be carried out before you request again the authorization to assembly tokamak’s components inside the cryostat.”

– Did you know that a one-day delay at ITER costs 1 million euros? This is what the ITER management used to say 5 years ago.

– Did you know that the ITER management decided to stop the installation of all fire protection systems in the nuclear buildings including the reactor (with the exception of a few rooms) to push the schedule – and without informing ASN?

– Did you know that the head of the assembly resigned because he was forced to give false testimony?

– Did you know that three employees have been fired for refusing to install without testing some parts that pose a life-threatening hazard to maintenance personnel?

– Did you know that two scientists, world experts on beryllium, have recently resigned, after seeing that the ITER Organization does not take into account the recommendations of their working group to protect the health and life of some 500 workers who will be in contact with beryllium – a highly toxic metal of which 12 tonnes will be used to cover the internal wall of the tokamak?

– Did you know that ASN has publicly stated (letter dated 9 February 2022) that “the unsatisfactory treatment of some [problems] demonstrates a lack of a safety culture”?

– And finally, did you know that several colleagues of ITER and ASN today confide that the ITER reactor will probably never be authorized to work? They point to significant and unresolved safety and design issues, as well as mistakes and decisions that are irreversible.

I am aware of the seriousness of these assertions. What to do? Two proposals:

  1. Carry out an expert and independent audit on the current operation of the project. When I say “independent” I mean not entrusting it to the fusion experts, who will obviously give their full support to the current management. Some people, some experts, should be able to speak before the ITER Council.
  2. Ask the European Commission, the main funder of ITER (46%), to exercise all its influence to put ITER in order. It is not acceptable that a project with 18 billion euros in funding from the EU goes against laws and regulations initiated and promoted by the Commission. We need a real governance.
  3. More precisely:
  4. The European Commission must take the initiative to require the ITER Organization (and F4E) to implement a genuine human resources management, including setting up a trade union. Recruitments and promotions should be managed in a professional way. Today, the real fuel of fusion is the people working for the project. The project must be respectful of its staff, its expertise and the cultures that cohabit in this vast international scientific cooperation. It is its richness, its raw material. We will never succeed ITER if we don’t succeed that.
  5. The European Commission must take the initiative to require the ITER Organization to work in good agreement with ASN.

I sincerely hope that the wisdom and the highest values of the Members of ITER and of the European Union can come first.

Thank you for your attention.

Michel Claessens

 

Speech at the European Parliament,
Committee on Budgetary Control,
28 February 2022.

 


 

Michel Claessens

ITER: A Whistleblower Report

A Preliminary Report to the European Commission, the European Parliament, the ITER Council, the European Anti-Fraud Office and the Defenseur des Droits (France)

In Cadarache (France), the ITER Organization is silencing or firing its employees who speak openly and honestly of problems with the reactor and who veer from the official discourse.

Today, I report about some of these cases, based on facts, public information and discussions I have had with some of the ITER staff, including several heads of department. These are only the tip of the iceberg and reflect serious mismanagement problems within the ITER Organization, responsible for building the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER). The discussions and exchanges confirmed the concerns of the French nuclear regulator ASN and revealed serious worries about the protection of the environment, an area explicitly covered by the EU directive on whistleblower [1], and more broadly, the future of the project.

The ITER Organization coordinates the ITER project, an experimental reactor being assembled near Saint-Paul-lez-Durance, a small village in southern France. It is funded by 33 countries (China, the European Union, India, Japan, Korea, Russia and the United States). The Organization’s management claims that by the end of this century, fusion energy, which fuels the sun and the stars, could become a new source of energy on Earth – “safe, clean and using abundant fuel”.

It is never a pleasure to talk in negative terms of a project and an organisation that you have been proud of. However, I cannot, in good conscience, remain silent while I know that undisclosed issues are affecting this international project funded by public money (of which nearly half comes from the EU). Also, I would like to share with scientists and science communicators, particularly young people, the lessons I have learned from this experience [2].

You may find this story to be anecdotal at best and you might be right to think so.

I am telling this story now because the new European whistleblower law is now being implemented. Furthermore, I am recently retired and at last feel safe to speak out. I decided to make it public to support my one-thousand colleagues because I know that most of them remain, and will remain, silent for fear of reprisals.

This story is reminiscent of the inherent difficulties within the field of scientific research and science communication today. It shows in concrete terms how management, personal attacks, public affairs and institutional pressures may undermine a genuine science communication.

A scientist and journalist by background, I have spent most of my career in various fields of science and technology, mostly in international organisations. For more than twenty years, I put my dual scientific and journalistic skills at the service of Europe, in the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Research. With my team, it was our ambition to highlight the benefits of transnational cooperation and bring citizens closer to a so-called “Europe of science”. For me, the cherry on the cake was when, in 2007, the European Commission followed my suggestion and allowed coordinators of EU funded projects to devote part of the research budget to public communication activities. According to many scientists, these activities contributed to improve the visibility and credibility of European research.

Now freshly retired, I have a critical – but optimistic – look at my 30-year career as a science communicator and I review in particular the difficulties I had to face in communicating ITER. I have always been enthusiastic about popularising science. I love making scientific knowledge and technological advances available to the public. It is also an important activity for science and society at large as epistemologists today consider citizens as active players in scientific research – by the questions they ask, the ideas they propose and the interest or the concerns they express.

In January 2011, I succeeded in a recruitment competition organised by the ITER Organization and I immediately accepted the offer of appointment as head of communications and external relations. I was happy to bring my professional skills to the service of this flagship project and to nuclear fusion research.

I remember those exciting days. I was contributing in a tangible way to the fight against climate change because fusion is often presented as a zero-carbon source of energy. The early ITER management praised my objective to achieve open and transparent communication in order to provide the public with high quality popularised scientific information.

Management decisions

On March 28, 2015, after only 23 days as the newly appointed Director- General of the ITER Organization, the French Bernard Bigot, abruptly terminated my employment in the absence of any cause specified in my contract [3]. “We don’t know each other but we are not going to work together”, he told me on March 28, 2015. “However, this has nothing to do with your competences”, he added.

I anticipated the possibility of this kind of decision. When a top manager comes in, he or she may want to bring in his or her own staff and change the management style or priorities. I remember I told my colleagues, as early as January 2015, that the new director (who was still unknown at that time) may decide to replace me.

But this type of abrupt decision is sometimes not linked to the management. It may be triggered because of a conflict of style, for example if the new director and the head of communications disagree on the strategy to be implemented and the way the project will be presented to the public and the media. It may also happen if public affairs and lobbying become more important than science communication. It can also be linked to personal issues or disagreements between the people. Last but not least, this decision may be motivated by political reasons.

When my employment at ITER terminated, the European Commission reassigned me to “Fusion for Energy” the European ITER domestic agency based in Barcelona which manages the EU participation in ITER. However, its managers ignored me. They didn’t reply to my emails and phone calls. In August 2016, the Director-General of the Energy Department of the Commission changed his mind and reassigned me back to Brussels as “ITER policy officer”. However, it felt like I was put in a fridge. After a busy twenty-year career, I was forced to spend my days waiting for an email arrive.

While I was still trying to do my job for the Commission, the ITER management in Cadarache pressured me directly and indirectly in efforts to limit my freedom of speech. On at least three occasions, they contacted me and criticized me for speaking with journalists about my prior experience as the ITER spokesperson and about the articles and the books I was writing about ITER. They tried to convince me to stop talking with journalists. When I failed to comply with their demand, I was called to appear before my supervisors in the Commission. In mid-2017, my health started to decline.

Conflicts

I was no longer “his master’s voice”: in my books (of which the publication had been accepted by the European Commission), I address issues about ITER in an open, constructive – but somewhat critical – way, such as the total cost of the experiment, the supply of fuels and the economic feasibility of fusion energy. As a result, the ITER Organization’s staff members are still today instructed to not mention any of my books and articles. I know this because a communication officer recently confirmed this to French journalist Celia Izoard during her visit at the site [4].

In July 2021, a Brussels-based company invited me to organise two panel sessions on ITER and fusion during the 76th General Assembly of the United Nations which took place in New York from 14 to 30 September 2021. However, the manager had to cancel the sessions because the ITER Organization told them that “they will not participate in any meeting or activity that I have anything to do with” [Krivit, 2021].

It became clear to me: the manner in which I wanted to personally speak about ITER conflicted with the manner in which the organisation, wanted me – a former employee – to speak about ITER. Whereas the current management prefers to make exaggerated claims such as “ITER scientists predict that fusion plants could start to come on line as soon as 2040” [ITER Organization, 2017]. I prefer to stick to the scientific facts.

I have been punished and I am still being punished: in June 2021, the ITER Organization refused the request of the former EU Commissioner in charge of research and innovation, Philippe Busquin, that I accompany him to visit the ITER site. And two weeks ago, they refused to grant me access to the site to accompany a group of students and teachers from an engineering school in Brussels (I had organised the group to visit CERN, CEA and ITER on 4-5 November 2021).

The key here is that ITER is most definitely a political project. It was launched by Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985 and ever since, the project has been managed by politicians, who sit on the ITER Council, the project’s top-level governing board, composed of representatives of the governments of each ITER member, and by scientists at the political level in the ITER Organization. ITER can be considered as a “political technology”, defined by Robert Bell (1998) as a technology developed and showcased for political reasons.

Different communication strategies

In hindsight, my approach to ITER was naive. I have always argued that communication about ITER must be open and honest, simply because ITER is funded by public money. This was my first ‘mistake’. Despite repeated requests to the ITER Organization from the European Commission, myself and other people to be more honest and accurate, the management has not taken substantive action to demonstrate this. The ITER Agreement, the project’s legal basis, states (article 3.1c) that “The ITER Organization shall […] promote public understanding and acceptance of fusion energy”. The current management is certainly interested in promoting public acceptance of the ITER project (which is directly tied to acceptance of its public funding) but its actions demonstrate that it is less interested in promoting accurate public understanding of the project.

For example, the ITER website home page claims boldly: “UNLIMITED ENERGY”. This is obviously false – nothing on Earth is unlimited. Furthermore, the worldwide inventory of tritium, one of the fuels of the fusion reaction, is very scarce (around 30 kilos). According to the website, the ITER budget is still estimated at 22 billion euros (the real cost is at least twice as high). And for many years, the ITER Organization has been claiming that the overall ITER reactor will produce ten times the power consumed by the reactor (i.e., an output power of 500 megawatts (MW) from only 50 MW of input heating power). In reality, the net power generated by the overall reactor will probably be close to zero, as reported by journalist Steven B. Krivit (2017). Incidentally, the ITER Organization sent this year an email to all the staff and contractors instructing them NOT to talk to Krivit.

Despite repeated requests since 2017 to communicate the project accurately and transparently, and even though the ITER management has demonstrated some compliance with those requests (mainly through Newsline, the newsletter which is a masterpiece of popularisation), the organisation published a press release on July 28, 2020, with an unequivocally false and exaggerated claim. It claimed that “The plant at ITER will produce about 500 megawatts of thermal power. If operated continuously and connected to the electric grid, that would translate to about 200 MW of electric power, enough for about 200,000 homes”.

This claim is false because it omits the 300 MW of electric power needed to operate ITER and produce the 500 MW [5]. The organisation has since quietly removed the press release from its website (the original is still available on the Max Planck Institute’s website [6]).

It is only in the very recent article published on October 27, 2021 by the famous French newspaper Le Canard enchaîné that the ITER Organization admitted for the first time that “Obviously, all the systems of the ITER plant will consume more energy than what the plasma is going to produce”. However, at a hearing in the French Parliament (Senate) which by coincidence took place on the same day, the Director-General surprisingly said that “If God allows me to be alive, in 2035, I will see effectively 10 times more energy produced that ITER will effectively have consumed” [7]. A few minutes later, the Director-General said that “at the end of the day, the efficiency will be between three and five, 3 and 5”.

Why Personal?

My second mistake is that I underestimated the political nature of the project. The previous examples show how the ITER top management behaves outside the norms of science ethics. Such grossly false claims reflect the underlying necessity of the current management to control any external communication about the project by whatever means is necessary.

From my conversations with former colleagues, I have learned of dozens of potentially unlawful terminations, some of which have already been determined and penalised by the Administrative Tribunal of the International Labour Organization (ILO) in Geneva [8]. They have also told me about illegally modified contracts (job description, grade etc), waves of staff resignations, mis- and disinformation (e.g. on power values), data manipulations (for example to reduce the apparent delays) and a workload unequally spread over the one-thousand staff (of which two died from a heart attack in the last six months). An American director and the head of personnel were both fired in just one day, much like we see in some Hollywood films, and were accompanied by security guards to their car without having the time to properly hand-over their open files. The latter won her case in 2018 before the Administrative Tribunal of the ILO.

In May 2021, one of my colleagues in the ITER European domestic agency in Barcelona committed suicide for professional reasons, according to a report of a European Commission’s trade union (Vlandas, 2021). And a suicide attempt happened at ITER on October 12, 2021, also for professional reasons (a Korean, father of three, who was under too much stress). “It could have been you”, my wife concluded.

More recently, a senior manager and renowned nuclear expert, who wishes to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals, discovered that she had been fired only by reading the monthly list of departing colleagues and seeing her name there. But the termination occurred a few days after publication of a French news story in which she had been assigned to answer questions. The journalist unexpectedly learned that this nuclear expert had been misinformed about the planned ITER power values and this was revealed in the news report. The expert also spoke honestly about safety concerns regarding some of the materials [9].

Nothing new under the ITER sun: we know that in both the private and public sectors of this business, competence can be penalised. Same story, different person: the ITER management has terminated employees who have spoken honestly and accurately about the project when that truth conflicts with the public relations strategy of the organisation.

According to my former colleagues I spoke with, the Director-General established within the organisation an unofficial team that reports directly to him, circumventing the managerial structure in place. They said he has empowered this team to oversee the organisation, thus enabling him to exert his personal control when rank-and-file management disagrees with him. They said that not only does this devalue the contributions of staff members, it creates a climate of insecurity and fear among them. They now fear that the project’s mismanagement may create technical problems in the assembling and in the operation of the reactor.

The discussions I had with my former colleagues revealed that recent decisions taken by the ITER Organization may compromise in particular the protection of the environment, the obligations required by the article 14 of the ITER Agreement, and even the future of the project. The Autorité de Surêté Nucléaire (ASN), the French nuclear regulator, reported on July 2, 2021 about falsified qualification certificates of welders and pointed unacceptable delays in supplying the ASN inspectors with the relevant information [10]. The regulator recently urged the ITER Organization to provide more information about the volume and the storage of tritium waste [11], highlighting important delays in designing the storage capacity of tritium waste, the so-called ‘Intermed’ Basic Nuclear Installation. There are other serious issues, such as the welding of the two vacuum chamber sectors (that arrived damaged on the site). Despite the fact that these two sectors cannot be welded together as they should be, the ITER Organization has decided to install the two sectors in the tokamak pit (so as not to miss the milestone) although the repair there will be very difficult if not impossible. Recently, the ITER Organization decided to cancel the installation of all fire protection systems in the nuclear buildings (except in a few rooms) to push the schedule, without informing ASN.

Another radioprotection issue concerns the walls of the nuclear buildings and in particular the ‘bioshield’ three-metre thick concrete wall that surrounds the tokamak to protect workers and the environment. Because of errors in the design and construction of the walls, the effective biological protection will be 30% lower than expected. ASN asked to implement additional protection modules but the ITER Organization refused to follow-up. The alternative solution proposed is not public. On December 10, 2021, ASN will issue its decision which most likely will reject the approach followed by ITER Organization.

Unsurprisingly, the project delays are already huge – the first experiments were initially scheduled to begin in 2016, now officially in 2025, and most probably in 2031. At its next meeting in November 2021, the ITER Council may only announce a one-year additional delay (first plasma in 2026 instead of 2025) so as not to create a crisis. The total construction cost of ITER is now estimated at around 41 billion euros which means that the budget overruns amount to nearly 36 billion euros – which of course is passed along to the ITER members’ citizens.

All these practices are unacceptable in a project funded by public money. The only explanation I found is that ITER is based on a political assumption – that fusion will soon become a commercial, safe and clean source of unlimited energy. In France and other countries, where nuclear energy is a highly sensitive and strategic issue, ITER is part of the national strategy and political leaders hope that fusion will reconcile their populations’ hesitancy about nuclear energy. Therefore, the end justifies the means and some people consider opposing a project like ITER as uncivil or unpatriotic. Indeed, dissent is nearly non-existent. For their roles in the project, the ITER Council members are reluctant to send negative messages to their respective governments. The ITER staff and contractors fear that they may lose their jobs (the ITER Organization’s employees are not eligible for French unemployment benefits).

Three messages

I would like to leave readers, particularly young people, with these three thoughts.

Firstly, in some organisations, science communication is never far from public relations, marketing and even lobbying. Managers use the science communication tools to pass on political messages and justify management decisions. However, as I argued in a previous article, research institutions have the responsibility to contribute to the development of a genuine science communication culture [Claessens, 2014].

Secondly, a head-in-the-sand strategy is never a good idea. When my contract was terminated, I should have immediately taken legal action against the ITER Organization instead of hoping for a fair solution to somehow develop. Science and technology are today highly competitive fields, and they are moving increasingly closer to politics. This situation encourages managers to act in ways that do not match their professional records or the integrity we expect from people in the scientific world. Therefore, vigilance is key. Better oversight by the public and the press is needed.

This is why today I want to let people know about this story even though I fear the ITER Organization may use its virtually unlimited political power and funding to take personal action against me to suppress my dissent. Thomas Jefferson said that “dissent is the highest form of patriotism”. It is my hope that wisdom in accordance with the higher values of the ITER members and the European Union will prevail. It is my hope that members of the public and representatives of the ITER parties will appreciate my efforts to redirect the activity of the ITER project in a manner which better dignifies the support and funding given to it by the public and the participating governments.

Thirdly, I am not sure whether fusion energy will one day contribute to fighting climate change but I am still convinced that ITER is a worthwhile project. Despite obvious management issues, 33 countries working collaboratively and building an experimental fusion reactor sends a strong message of hope and optimism to the world. Can we accomplish this feat without compromising our humanity and dignity?

Michel Claessens,
Vinon-sur-Verdon, le 2 november 2021.
Version updated on 15 February 2022.

 

References

Bell, Robert. 1998. Les Péchés capitaux de la haute technologie. Paris: Seuil.

Claessens, M. (22 September 2014). “Research institutions: neither doing science communication nor promoting ‘public’ relations”, Journal of Science Communication, https://doi.org/10.2232372.13030303

Claessens, Michel. 2018. ITER, étoile de la science – Petite histoire d’un projet scientifique titanesque. Plouharnel: Editions du Menhir

Claessens, Michel. 2020. ITER, The Giant Fusion Reactor. Switzerland: Springer

ITER Organization (6 December 2017). “World’s most complex machine is 50 percent completed”, https://www.iter.org/doc/www/content/com/Lists/list items/Attachments/75 9/2017 12 Fifty Percent.pdf

Krivit, S.B. (6 October 2017). The ITER Power Amplification Myth, http://news.newenergytimes.net/2017/10/06/the-iter-power-amplification-myth/

Krivit, S.B. (9 September 2021). Organizers Cancel Fusion Session for United Nations General Assembly Science Summit, http://news.newenergytimes.net/2021/09/09/organizers-cancel-fusion-session-for-united-nations-general-assembly-science-summit/

Max Planck Institute (28 July 2020). Press release: Start of ITER Assembly paves the way for fusion energy era, https://www.ipp.mpg.de/4891427/ITER-PR-July-22-2020.pdf

Rossi, L. (23 March 2020). A unique exercise in scientific diplomacy, CERN Courier. https://cerncourier.com/a/a-unique-exercise-in-scientific-diplomacy/

Vlandas, G. (7 May 2021). Open Letter to the Director of Fusion for Energy, https://u4unity.eu/document3/F4E openletter 20210517.pdf

 

 

15 February 2022 Update

1. About the bioshield issue

On 8 December, 2021, IRSN (Institute of Radioprotection and Nuclear Safety) sent to ASN its report [12], which rejected the approach proposed by the ITER Organization:

“As far as protection against ionising radiations is concerned, […], IRSN considers that th e current development of the solutions [proposed by the ITER Organization] does not allow, at this stage, to conclude on their technical feasibility, on their efficacity or on the impact on safety of these [proposed] solutions.”

Specifically, IRSN considers that the possible exposure of the public and workers to radiation is underestimated by the ITER Organization. During a special meeting of the steering committee ASN/IRSN/ITER Organization on January 5, 2022, ASN announced that the reactor assembly is not authorized, which means in practice a shutdown of the project. More precisely, lowering the two vacuum vessel sectors in the tokamak pit is not allowed.

2. A very serious accusation

On December 1, 2021, I received from an internal source at ITER an exchange of emails between an ex-colleague and an employee of the Organization, the first one writing to the second one and making a very serious accusation:

“Here is the explosive document [my whistleblower report, author’s note] written by the former communication director at ITER. His report incisively denounces hard management practices, concerning both human resources and scientific choices, which may, if they are confirmed, endanger the project. Enjoy the reading and please delete this email as soon as you have read it. Thank you:

Technical problems are mentioned, such as the vacuum sectors that cannot be welded together as they should be because lifted down in the tokamak pit in a complete sector (with thermal shields and two toroidal coils) to be on schedule (?)

— Personnel management

— The waves of many terminations, including myself (with two more colleagues we have been fired because we refused to install components without testing them although they present a life-threatening risk for the maintenance workers

— The problems with ASN,

— The fake documents about quality insurance,

etc.”

Unfortunately, we are fighting since long time to correct these anomalies… but the order was « we will see later. we move forward. » Fusion is apparently no longer the priority! … ????? It is sad. »

3. Iodine-131

Finally, there is an issue with the release of some products, specifically iodine-131, a radioactive isotope present in nuclear fission products, and a significant contributor to the health hazards from open-air atomic bomb testing in the 1950s, and from the Chernobyl and Fukushima disasters. In 2019, an internal working group of the ITER Organization concluded that iodine-131 will be released in the tokamak (because of traces of uranium-235 in the beryllium covering the walls). According to their technical simulations, a worst-case accident at ITER could release at least to 10 times more iodine-131 than a PWR (pressurised water reactor) fission plant. It may be that the working group’s conclusions are false as the experts assumed that iodine-131 diffuses at the same speed as radon. But if confirmed, this could put at risk the future of the ITER project (ASN will most likely decide to relaunch the licensing process). A group of independent experts should urgently be set up to clarify this issue.

4. Beryllium and ITER mismanagement

Two scientists, known to be among the best world experts on beryllium, recently resigned from the ITER Organization because of profound disagreement with the intentions of the ITER management about protecting workers from biohazards of beryllium. They concluded of « intended neglect » to worker safety as the management does not intend to perform the necessary steps to protect the lives and safety of its workers.

Beryllium, a light metal, is known to be highly toxic to humans, because beryllium dust can damage the lungs and cause beryllium sensitization and Chronic Beryllium Disease (CBD), a dangerous and persistent lung disorder that has no cure.

In ITER, beryllium will be used to cover the 440 blanket modules (also called bricks), which will compose the inner first wall of the tokamak. In total, the reactor will contain about 12 tonnes of beryllium, covering a surface of 610 m2.

According the two experts, the ITER Organization has not yet implemented the beryllium safety plan (BMCP, Beryllium Management and Control Program). The current protocol for manufacturing, handling and installing the blanket modules could lead to « unacceptable contamination among the workers, » the experts said. An ITER Organization’s document mentions 450 beryllium workers at ITER over the project lifetime but the experts claim that this number is deliberately underestimated.

Scientific evidence shows that CBD may occur at exposures which are well below the exposure limit (0.2 μg/m3). At ITER, the risk may affect one worker in five. As a result, occupational beryllium risks for ITER should be considered equal if not higher than occupational risks to radionuclides for levels at their exposure limits. The document concludes that “There is a potential for more than one hundred [CBD] cases if beryllium risks are not effectively controlled”. It includes eight recommendations, such as “using tungsten for the second set of the first wall panels after 15,000 pulses” and hiring “beryllium experts and place the manager [in charge of the BMCP] in a position of authority in order to accurately evaluate risks and direct the design of controls”.

One of the two scientists was asked to make a presentation on beryllium risks to the ITER management. Her superior disagreed with the draft presentation and wanted to make the presentation himself. The scientist and her colleague resigned shortly afterwards, taking stock that the ITER Organization is underestimating the beryllium risks.

5. Management

About the management of ITER, one of the two experts explained to me:

“There are layers of bad management practices at ITER. […] I was really surprised to learn that they don’t have training on sexual harassment or gender bias. My manager was noted for saying things like « women don’t really belong on a construction site », « let’s look at Sarah’s curves » for an introduction to a female engineer giving a talk using charts, and calling us « safety girls ». There is one manager named E., who makes sexual jokes in French all the time to the French female colleagues. One female engineer refused to work for him. Now her contract is not going to be renewed even though her work was exemplary.”

“I have seen practices of intentional distraction, insertion of managers to manage something they have no experience with, rewarding fusion physicists with division management positions without the proper experience, setting major unrealistic cost limitations to very important building designs, establishing another policy without the use of the technical experts to avoid following the current one that applies and the list goes on. A normal person just gets worn down by the drama!”

I was like a fish in water at ITER. A scientist speaking five languages, I welcomed hundreds of groups of visitors for scientific guided tours which blew most of them away: “Why are you not talking more on this breath-taking project?”, they asked. I eventually published two books on ITER [Claessens 2018, Claessens 2020] which have been praised by many scientists including Robert Aymar, who is considered as the father of ITER, and the former Undersecretary of State for Science in the Department of Energy, Raymond Orbach. The books received very positive reviews, including in the CERN Courier [Rossi, 2020].

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR a scientist and journalist, Michel Claessens is a former EU civil servant and a former head of communications at ITER. He recently published The Science and Politics of Covid-19 (Springer, 2021).

 


[1] < https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/HTML/?uri=CELEX:32019L1937&from=EN >

[2] Article 46 of the EU directive: Whistleblowers are, in particular, important sources for investigative journalists. Providing effective protection to whistleblowers from retaliation increases legal certainty for potential whistleblowers and thereby encourages whistleblowing also through the media. In this respect, protection of whistleblowers as journalistic sources is crucial for safeguarding the ‘watchdog’ role of investigative journalism in democratic societies.

[3] None of the four causes for contract termination mentioned in article 6.3. of the ITER Organization’s staff regulations applied in my case: “[…] suppression of the budget post […] change in the nature or functions pertaining to the post […] professional inadequacy of the staff member […] medical unfitness of the staff member […].”

[4] Celia Izoard, « ITER les promesses polluantes de la fusion nucléaire », site Reporterre, june 2021 [in french only]. < https://reporterre.net/Iter-les-promesses-polluantes-de-la-fusion-nucleaire-l-enquete-de-Reporterre >

[5] < http://newenergytimes.com/v2/sr/iter/IO/20200729Krivit-to-Coblentz.pdf >

[6] < https://www.ipp.mpg.de/4891427/ITER-PR-July-22-2020.pdf >

[7] < https://twitter.com/i/broadcasts/1mnGedMaoqYKX >

[8] See for example the judgement of June 26, 2018: < https://www.ilo.org/dyn/triblex/triblexmain.fullText?p_lang=fr&p_judgment_no=3990&p_language_code=EN >

[9] My former colleague asked me not to publish the reference of the interview so that she can remain anonymous.

[10] < https://www.asn.fr/recherche?filter_year%5bfrom%5d=2021&filter_year%5bto%5d=2021&search_content_type=letter&search_content_subtype=letter_inb&nuclear_installation_name%5b%5d=Iter&search_text=INSSN-MRS-2021-0650 >

[11] Avis n°2021-AV-0379 de l’Autorité de sureté nucléaire du 11 mai 2021, < https://www.actu-environnement.com/media/pdf/news-37664-avis-asn-dechets-sans-filiere.pdf >

[12] < https://www.irsn.fr/FR/expertise/avis/2021/Documents/decembre/Avis-IRSN-2021-00195.pdf >

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