… as Europeans lobby for reactor construction

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Street demo: technology developed from fusion research is being used in the energy-efficient Altrobus in Bologna, Italy. Credit: JET

European proponents of the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) have launched a campaign to win support for the construction of the fusion reactor in the run-up to key budget decisions due next year.

The first of a series of public seminars took place in Munich last month, introducing the concept of a slimmed-down version of ITER intended to meet criticism of excessive cost. Last week ITER scientists held an exhibition at the European Parliament and lobbied members of the parliament, many of whom have expressed scepticism of fusion as a viable energy source.

The lobbying comes at a time when the ITER collaboration — a partnership between Europe, Japan and Russia — is preparing a detailed design outline for the reactor before the opening in Japan next spring of budgetary discussions for 2001.

The design will also form the basis of a proposal for funding under the European Commission's sixth Framework programme of research (FP6), due to start in 2003. Discussions about the content of FP6 begin next summer.

Plasma physicists in the collaboration believe that the engineering design phase for ITER should not be further extended. It has already been extended for an additional three years to cope with cash shortages resulting from waning political confidence (see Nature 387, 746; 1997). The physicists believe the time has come to bite the bullet and start building, to test the validity of experimental plasma-physics predictions.

“Plasma-physics research will lose its dynamism without a close coupling to energy production,” Umberto Finzi, director of the European Commission's energy programme, told the Munich meeting.

The ITER programme suffered a major blow earlier this year when the United States withdrew support. The remaining three partners are now promoting a concept, known informally as ITER-Lite, which reduces technical objectives and cost.

The cost of ITER-Lite, around US$3 billion, is less than half that of the original proposal, but the original goal of achieving ignition has been dropped. Ignition is an important phenomenon for physicists. But, to move confidently to the next step of a demonstration fusion power plant, ITER has only to demonstrate gain — energy amplification.

Both Japan and Canada (on behalf of the European partner) are hoping to offer sites to host ITER during the next couple of years. Klaus Pinkau, recently retired director of the Max Planck Institute for Plasma Physics in Garching, told the Munich meeting he was optimistic that, once a site had been established, the United States would consider rejoining. Pinkau is co-chairman of a working group set up to oversee the design of a cheaper ITER.

A site in Canada would probably be more attractive to the United States because its geographical proximity would favour participation of US industry in the construction.

But the United States will need considerable persuasion to change its position. It argues that it does not need to look for a new, cheap source of power because it can rely on its own oil supplies.

It also has a substantial commitment to research into inertial confinement fusion, an approach that competes with ITER's magnetic confinement approach. But Pinkau said that the United States should recognize the political importance of ensuring stable energy supplies in other countries.

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Abbott, A. … as Europeans lobby for reactor construction. Nature 402, 570 (1999) doi:10.1038/45046

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