Fusion reaching critical phase

30 November 1999

The European fusion community is launching a lobbying campaign to persuade politicians to back the next stage in fusion development. At a meeting in Garching, near Munich, leading players in Europe’s fusion community presented their strategy to realise the dream of fusion power by 2050.

The European Union’s (EU) sixth framework programme begins in 2003 and decisions on its research agenda will be made next summer. The Japanese government will also decide next year whether to continue backing fusion research.

Work has reached the point where a new reactor, theoretically capable of producing more energy than it consumes, is possible. But it needs to be built. Mikhail Gorbachev first proposed building such a reactor as a multinational endeavour in 1985 and scientists have been working on the design of such a device ever since. The result is the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER). Originally expected to cost six billion euros, the budget had to be reduced to three billion following the US’ decision to pull out of the project. However the European Union and Japan are still committed to financing the project, with Russia providing intellectual rather than financial resources (See NEI, Feb p27).

“The fusion programme is fully integrated at the European level,” said Umberto Finzi, director of the EU fusion programme. “This provides advantages in coordinating work, but the disadvantage is the programme can be killed by a single shot.” During the fifth framework programme, running from 1999 to 2002, the EU’s budget for fusion research is 788 million euros. European expenditure on fusion is 490 million euros per year. The EU provides about 40% of this budget, with the rest coming from national budgets. The work employs 2000 scientists across Europe, including 250 PhD students. The project has the highest mobility rate for researchers of any scientific programme in Europe.

Another issue yet to be addressed is the location of the ITER reactor. The host country would enjoy significant benefits and would be expected to make a greater financial contribution as a result. EU scientists unsurprisingly would like it built in Europe, but Japan is also seriously considering hosting the project and Canada, which is associated with the EU, not the US, in fusion research, has suggested either the Bruce or Darlington power complexes may be suitable.

A possible timetable for the ITER project would involve political and financial commitment by the end of 2002, followed by two years of licensing and eight years’ construction.

As part of the fusion programme 20 people are working on socio-economic aspects of the work. The greatest risk of failure is not the science – physicists are confident that success is possible – but lack of political support.

Other challenges involve engineering aspects such as heating the plasma to the desired temperature while maintaining stability and an optimum shape and the development of materials which can withstand high temperatures and pressures as well as large neutron fluxes without changing properties.

Fusion promises an energy source with almost limitless fuel without the problems of greenhouse gases or the risks of fission power.

“If ITER fails there is no other way forward,” said Finzi. “The next step must be taken or all other work is useless.”



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