Bernard Bigot said: “We try to understand nature, then we try, within human limits, to recreate what nature shows us. He was referring to fusion energy, to which he devoted the last years of his life. The statement also sheds light on his contributions to society as a chemist, physicist, educator, administrator, and inspirational leader. He was a committed civil servant, adviser to French presidents, former general administrator of the Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission (CEA) and, from 2015, general manager of the ITER organization in the south of France, which oversees the largest experimental park in the world. fusion reactor. He died in office at the age of 72.
For Bigot, the universal availability of massive carbon-free energy sources was a central goal in his mission to create a better world. ITER, a collaboration of 35 countries to build the first industrial-scale fusion facility, was clearly part of this vision. When he arrived, the project was experiencing difficulties that threatened its very existence. Beginning with a series of structural and managerial reforms, including the move to centralized decision-making and the creation of cross-organizational project teams, Bigot got it back on track. He eventually overcame the dual challenge of the machine’s complexity and its manufacturing dispersed across three continents. Many claimed he saved ITER and reinvigorated the quest to make fusion power part of society’s future.
Born in Blois in the Loire Valley, France, in 1950, Bigot was admitted to the École Normale Supérieure (ENS) in Saint-Cloud, where he pursued two teaching degrees. In 1979, he obtained a doctorate in theoretical chemistry from the Pierre and Marie Curie University in Paris. He has led research teams at the ENS and at the Catalysis Research Institute of Lyon, relying in both cases on his growing reputation as a modeler of real systems, such as heterogeneous catalysis systems, as well as than photochemistry and chemistry in a condensed state. He organized the transfer and transformation of the ENS from Saint-Cloud to Lyon in the mid-1980s and was appointed director of the century-old establishment in 2000.
Yet his sense of duty to advance the common good led him from academic research to public service, where he made his greatest contributions. The fission of atomic nuclei and their fusion are potential sources of almost unlimited energy. Fission is now industrialized worldwide: in France, 56 reactors provide 70% of electricity production. Fusion is still in the experimental phase and ITER is designed to demonstrate its technological and industrial feasibility. At its heart is a tokamak, a doughnut-shaped vacuum chamber about the weight of the Eiffel Tower, surrounded by magnetic coils. In the chamber, a high-temperature hydrogen isotope gas forms a plasma in which nuclei can fuse together in the same reaction that powers the Sun, producing energy in the form of heat.
Bigot’s contributions to carbon-free energy began with fission, as he helped shape France’s nuclear policy. From 2002 to 2003, he was chief of staff to the French Minister of Research (and former astronaut) Claudie Haigneré. He was High Commissioner for Atomic Energy from 2003 to 2009, then headed the CEA until 2015. During his tenure, the Commissariat officially added “Alternative Energies” to its name and became the driving force behind the ITER project.
Bigot’s international network and natural talent as a diplomat proved invaluable when he came to lead ITER – a collaboration between China, Europe, India, Japan, South Korea, Russia and the States States – in sometimes dangerous waters. His biggest challenge came in 2020, with the outbreak of COVID-19. The massive components of ITER – superconducting magnets the weight of a Boeing 747 aircraft, precision forged and welded pieces of steel the size of Stonehenge, parts of the vacuum vessel that took more than five years to manufacture – were beginning to arrive for integrated assembly. Bigot rallied the ITER partners to a consensus that the project would continue without a break, a decision that ultimately proved successful.
Bigot and I have been involved in ITER since its inception, long before the birth of the ITER Organization. We sat across the table, he for France and I for Japan, discussing where we would build the facility. It was my joy to have been able to work with him, sitting at the same table, after he called me to join him in 2015. We spoke for 15 minutes in his office at 7:45 every morning, before the day doesn’t get hectic. During these calm, quiet but effective meetings, I learned a lot about his way of living, thinking and working, as well as his incredible integrity, passion and energy.
The French call men of Bigot’s nature and attitude monk-soldier, that is to say, they combine in their personality and behavior the simplicity (sometimes perceived as austerity) of the monk and the determination, loyalty and devotion of the soldier. Bernard Bigot was a monk-soldier, but also a man of deep human warmth and the sensitivity of a husband, father and friend. To his grandchildren, he explained his role at ITER as that of a builder of a medieval cathedral who would not live to see the final masterpiece, but whose work created the hope that would inspire others to complete the task.
A pedagogue at heart, Bigot had a rare talent for explaining the most complex ideas. Government leaders, media representatives and others will recall how simple and exciting the merger sounded when he explained it.
As committed to the present as he was to the future, Bigot remained deeply attached to several educational institutions and foundations, including the Fondation Maison de la Chimie – a Paris-based chemistry center – of which he served as president. Preparing the younger generations for the challenges they will face has always been at the center of his concerns. Far beyond ITER and the international research community, his untimely demise will be felt as a huge loss.
The author declares no competing interests.