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How a tiny widget waylaid the world’s biggest science experiment


By Jonathan Tirone

It was one of the smallest pieces in the world’s biggest science project that turned into the most vexing coronavirus supply-chain hurdle for Bernard Bigot.

The 70-year-old physicist is responsible for making sure the $22 billion ITER fusion reactor in France starts running on time. His machine, using more than a million pieces sourced from 35 countries, was supposed to begin testing in five years — at least that was the timeline before the pandemic hit.

Economies are counting on the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor to prove whether limitless quantities of clean energy can be generated by mimicking the power that makes stars shine — a potential panacea to slow global warming on Earth.

“We were on a tight schedule with our first big piece ready for installation when we noted the shims still hadn’t arrived from India,” Bigot said in an interview with Bloomberg News from ITER’s site an hour’s drive north of Marseilles.

The tale of ITER’s missing shims — simple bits of metal used to balance more complex pieces of machinery — illustrates how even the best-laid contingency plans have had to be rewritten because of Covid-19, requiring executives like Bigot to come up with creative solutions to keep business going.

The former head of France’s atomic regulator said he got on the phone with Indian officials and suppliers at Larsen & Toubro Ltd. as soon as engineers among ITER’s skeleton staff of 700 workers alerted him the shims were missing. It was the day after Prime Minister Narendra Modi had imposed travel restrictions on March 22, sealing off the factory where the wedges of specialty stainless steel are produced in Hazira, India.

“Sometimes it is better to authorize higher short-term costs in order to mitigate much higher ones in the future,” said Bigot, explaining why ITER got Indian government permission to hire trucks for a 500 kilometer (311 mile) journey to transport 7 tons of shims to a chartered airplane bound for France.

About 70% of the work has been completed at ITER with installation of the cryostat, a stainless-steel chamber needed to cool atomic reactions, due to begin May 12. The shims are necessary to securely lodge in place that piece of equipment — the biggest high-pressure vacuum ever built — so that the reactor can safely generate temperatures exceeding 100 million degrees Celsius (180 million degrees Fahrenheit).

“We still think we can reach first plasma in 2025,” Bigot said. “But it is too early to say because there are so many uncertainties around the coronavirus effect.”

Workshops in Italy, Germany and Spain have been shut down for more than a month, dashing ITER’s plans to accelerate construction, Bigot said. He’ll reassess the project’s timeline and budget with ITER shareholders at a meeting in June.

“The bullet has already left the rifle,” he said. “There’s a lot of activities yet to happen but I expect it to go on.”

Personnel were given face masks and protective gear to shield them from the virus. About 1,500 of the project’s 2,300 employees are back on site with the rest working remotely, according to Bigot, who said he’s dedicating more time than ever managing supply chains.

In between scheduling transit time for a mammoth 342-wheel trailer hauling giant pieces of equipment from the Port of Marsellies to ITER, Bigot said he recently received good news out of Brussels and London indicating that the U.K. will continue to participate in his project even after it leaves the European Union.

“There is a common understanding to find a solution,” he said.

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