The Chinese are not content to wait until 2016 for ITER to come online to start working out the final issues involved in bringing fusion power online.
The Chinese are building a reactor called EAST which is expected to see first plasma around August 15, 2006. They began construction earlier this year which gives you an idea of the ambitious timeline.
EAST will be the first Tokamak to use superconductive coils to generate the magnetic plasma containment field. Copper coils used in existing research reactors have electrical resistance which consumes power producing heat limiting power shots to about sixty seconds. Commercial power reactors must operate continuously dictating the use of superconductive magnets.
Using superconductive coils, EAST will not be subject to coil heating. Power shots over fifteen minutes long allows some remaining questions to be addressed.
One major unanswered question relates to the performance and endurance of the diverter. The diverter is a device that skims the helium waste off the outer surface of the plasma. Helium removal is necessary in an operating reactor because a build up of helium absorbs energy squelching the fusion reaction. Questions relating to heating and abrasion of the diverter can only be answered by longer power shots.
Another concern for commercial reactors is long term plasma stability issues that may not present themselves in existing research reactors. EAST will allow power shots to last long enough to either reveal those instabilities or to determine that they do not exist.
East is not as large as ITER will be and so will not operate at full scale commercial power generation levels. It will allow testing and characterization of all the requisite technology that ITER will require.
It doesn’t bother me that the Chinese are doing this. It does bother me that we, in the energy hungry United States, are not. The Chinese understand the urgency of getting away from fossil fuels for their energy needs. For some reason, we, in the west, do not.