June 28, 2005

France to host world’s first nuclear fusion plant

By Guy Faulconbridge

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Science's quest to find a cheap andinexhaustible way to meet global energy needs took a major stepforward on Tuesday when a 30-nation consortium chose France tohost the world's first nuclear fusion reactor.

After months of wrangling, France defeated a bid from Japanand signed a deal to site the 10-billion-euro ($12.18-billion)experimental reactor in Cadarache, near Marseille.

The project will seek to turn seawater into fuel bymimicking the way the sun produces energy.

Its backers say it would be cleaner than existing nuclearreactors, but critics argue it could be at least 50 yearsbefore a commercially viable reactor is built, if at all.

"We are making scientific history," Janez Potocnik, theEU's Science and Research Commissioner, told a news conferencein Moscow, where the multinational partners in the ITER(International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor) project weremeeting.

A nuclear fusion power station is the 'Holy Grail' forscientists trying to find a viable alternative to the world'sdepleting stocks of oil and gas.

Crude this week reached a record price of $60.95 a barrelin some trading and a summit of the Group of Eight industrialnations next week is to discuss climate change, widely blamedon burning fossil fuels for energy.


Unlike existing fission reactors, which release energy bysplitting atoms apart, ITER would generate energy by combiningthem. Power has been harnessed from fusion in laboratories butscientists have so far been unable to build a commerciallyviable reactor, despite decades of research.

The 500 megawatt ITER reactor will use deuterium, extractedfrom seawater, as its major fuel and a giant electromagneticring to fuse atomic nuclei at extremely high temperatures.

One of the biggest challenges facing scientists is to builda reactor that can sustain temperatures of about 100 millionCelsius (180 million F) for long enough to generate power.

"I give it a 50:50 chance of success but the engineering isvery difficult," said Ian Fells of Britain's Royal Academy ofEngineering. "If we can really make this work there will beenough electricity to last the world for the next 1,000 to2,000 years."

The ITER project began in 1985 but wrangling over the siteand financing have caused repeated delays.

At their meeting in Moscow, officials from ITER partnersChina, the 25-nation EU, Japan, Russia, South Korea and theUnited States chose France over Japan.

In its long battle to host the project, the EU, backingmember France, used some of the tactics of unilateralism itoften criticizes in the United States, vowing to go it alone orbuild ITER with a "coalition of the willing" if the Japanesedid not yield.

In the end, the EU made huge financial and industrialconcessions to the Japanese.

The EU will fund 40 percent of the 4.6 billion euroconstruction cost with France paying an additional 10 percent,while each of the other five members of the consortium will pay10 percent.

In Tokyo's case, this will be offset by contracts for up to10 percent of the procurement, EU participation in scienceprojects in Japan with up to 8 percent of the cost of ITERconstruction, and a disproportionate share of Japanese staff onthe ITER organization, including the post of director-general.

"We believe that the ITER project should start as soon aspossible for the sake of mankind's future," said NariakiNakayama, Japan's science minister.

Building the reactor is expected to take about ten years,but some scientists say it could take three times that long andthe sides have yet to reach a final agreement on a number ofissues, including financing, before the builders can move in.

Environmental campaign group Greenpeace estimates that ifthe project yields any results at all, it will not be until thesecond half of this century.

"At a time when it is universally recognized that we mustreduce greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, Greenpeace considersit ridiculous to use resources and billions of euros on thisproject," it said.

France has been a big producer of nuclear energy since theoil shocks of the 1970s and has 58 nuclear reactors, the mostin the world after the United States. (Additional reporting byPatricia Reaney in London, Swaha Pattanaik in Paris, ElaineLies in Tokyo and Brussels newsroom) ((Writing by ChristianLowe, Editing by Janet Lawrence; [email protected], rm:[email protected], tel. +7 095 7751242) ($1=.8209 Euro)