France secures site for 10 billion euro nuclear fusion research project

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Tuesday, June 28, 2005

The European Union has won a years-long battle to host ITER, the 'next step' in nuclear fusion research. Nuclear fusion is the process that powers our sun, and could potentially lead to almost unlimited energy available on Earth.

The six partners in the international project — the European Union (through its suborganization EURATOM), the People's Republic of China, Japan, South Korea, Russia and the United States - declared today in Moscow that the device will be constructed at Cadarache, in France. The other contender for the project was Japan.

Japan and the EU (as well as Canada until 2003) had fought a long and hard battle to secure the site of the experiment, seen as the next step towards nuclear fusion, until Japan finally withdrew its bid today.

Under the terms of the agreement, the EU will pay 50% of the construction costs of the 10 billion euro (£6.6bn) program costs, while Japan will gain 20% of the 200 research jobs that will be part of the project, but pay only 10% of the costs.

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

Professor Sir Chris Llewellyn Smith, head of the of UK Atomic Energy Authority's (UKAEA) Culham division, responsible for the UK's thermonuclear fusion programme, said that "rapid construction of ITER will be a major step in the development of fusion as a potential large-scale source of electricity that will not contribute to climate change."

French environmental groups have shown dismay at the news of the siting decision. Mediane, one such group, said "We are against the project because it's very dangerous and will not create jobs in the region." A group of several French environmental groups, Sortir du Nucleaire (Get Out of Nuclear Energy), said ITER was dangerous as scientists did not know "how to manipulate the high-energy deuterium and tritium hydrogen isotopes used in the fusion process. ITER will never produce electricity. Maybe, well after ITER, another reactor in 100, 150 or 200 years will do so — but that's far from certain."

The JET nuclear fusion project in the UK has operated for twenty years and has used tritium for ten; it has a 100% safety record with no radiation ever being released.

ITER will follow on from the work of such experiments as the European JET, the Japanese JT-60u, and the American TFTR and DIII-D. It is not designed to produce electricity, but to research technologies that will allow a prototype nuclear fusion power plant — 'DEMO' — to begin construction in around 2030. The ITER program itself will last for thirty years — ten for construction, and at least 20 years of operation.

Nuclear fusion works by forcing the atomic nuclei — in this case isotopes of hydrogen, namely deuterium and/or tritium — to combine under great heat and pressure. The products of the reaction have a lower mass than the original reactants — releasing energy according to Einstein's famous equation of E=mc^2.

The fuel is derived from sea water, meaning that fusion is an almost limitless source of energy.

Nuclear fusion produces no waste products other than helium, and does not contribute to global warming in any way. Little radiation is produced by the reaction; a nuclear fusion power plant will take less than 100 years to become completely safe after decommissioning. Furthermore, fusion reactors have very little fuel inside them at any one moment — so therefore no chance of a 'meltdown' — and can shut down in seconds if the fuel supply is cut off.

Sources

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