The future of the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), the next generation plasma fusion machine, is in doubt following the failure of the United States to sign a three year design extension agreement in Vienna on 22 July. The initial six year engineering and design agreement between Russia, Japan, the European Union and the US came to an end on 21 July, however both US Houses of Congress are opposing the extension plan which would have involved a $12 million commitment from the US in the first financial year. The total cost of the ITER project is thought to be in the region of $6 billion, but the extension agreement involves a commitment to explore the possibility of cheaper design options.
The US Department of Energy, while wanting to sign, is hamstrung by the Congress. Under Secretary of Energy, Ernest Monitz said in a letter to James Sensenbrenner, chairman of the House of Representatives Committee on Science, that the failure of the US to sign the extension agreement would be “counter to the strategy endorsed by a broad spectrum of fusion community researchers”.
Sensenbrenner had expressed doubt as to whether the ITER would ever be built and if it were, would it be money well spent.
“Where will it be built? Is the current design too ambitious? What environmental concerns need to be addressed? What level of confidence can be reached regarding the willingness and ability of our partners to make timely and sufficient contributions to the project?” he asked.
Consultations between the DOE and Congress must be completed before the next meeting in Japan in October, when the US will be expected to sign.
Since Reagan and Gorbachev first set in train plans to develop ITER, finances for such ambitious projects has become far less available. Europe is concentrating on establishing a single currency, Japan is in a recession and Russia’s economy is in crisis.
According to Russia’s Izvestia, Yevgeny Velikhov, chairman of the ITER council, has written “a letter of despair” to President Clinton. The Russian news agency has also implied that the real motive for American resistance is a desire to keep the technology to themselves.
“Possessing the ITER technical project that was the fruit of the work of specialists from many countries, the United States is in a position to build the experimental power station by itself. None of America’s partners in Japan, Russia or Euratom have the resources for building it” says Izveztia.