The quest to find a cheap and inexhaustible way to meet global energy needs was given a boost when a 30-nation consortium chose France to host the world’s first nuclear fusion reactor. Opinions remain divided over whether nuclear fusion is safe and economically viable as a sustainable source of energy production.
Proponents of nuclear fusion claim that if it succeeds, the ITER project will result in a cost effective and potentially inexhaustible supply of energy that will eventually replace oil and gas altogether. Officials from the six-partner consortium predict that the project will create approximately 10,000 jobs and take eight years to build. An experimental reactor would then be fully operational by 2040.
Opponents argue that the project is purely experimental and that it will take at least 50 years before a commercially viable reactor is even built. Environmentalists are suggesting that despite being a more environmentally sound energy source than nuclear fission, fusion fuel is neither clean nor safe. Some scientists are estimating that the project could take three times longer than expected and environmental campaign group Greenpeace have stated that if the project yields any results at all, it will not be until the second half of this century. If the project is to proceed, the nation states comprising the consortium must also overcome differences on a number of issues, such as the extent of financing.
French President Jacques Chirac greeted the news of France's succesful bid to host the ITER reactor with praise for EU technological and scientific expertise. Thanking rivals Japan for agreeing to negotiate a compromise, Chirac claimed that the project was a testiment to international co-operation and the global commitment to assuring sustainable energy sources: "It is a big success for France, for Europe and for all partners of ITER [...] I think we can delight in having maintained the spirit of dialogue and mutual trust throughout our discussions."
Dominique de Villepin, recently appointed prime minister of France, also welcomed the agreement and viewed it as an indication that EU member states could achieve great things if they worked together harmoniously.
Following the decision to host the ITER reactor in France, Dr. Peter Haug, director general of FORATOM and secretary general of the European Nuclear Society (ENS) commented: "This will provide a major boost for the European nuclear energy industry and is well-earned recognition of its excellent research credentials. Choosing this bid endorses the European nuclear industry’s long-held view that the ITER project is one that requires broad and effective international co-operation and the pooling of resources and know-how."
In agreement was Bertrand BARRÉ, President of the European Nuclear Society, ENS, who declared: "The long-awaited decision to select the European site of Cadarache to build the ITER international fusion facility is very good news for the whole European R&D community, and especially for those of us who have been working for decades to develop the peaceful uses of nuclear energy, both fission and fusion. This is also recognition of the key contribution made by Europe to fusion research, one of the very few areas of truly international co-operation."
Voicing oppoisition to the project was Rebecca Harms, Green/EFA member of the European Parliament's Committee on Industry, Research and Energy, who said: "The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) is an enormous project of no practical relevance whatsoever. The €10 billion that will be spent on this white elephant bears no relation to what we can expect to gain from it. In the next 50 years nuclear fusion will neither tackle climate change nor guarantee the security of our energy supply". Arguing that the EU's energy research should be focused elsewhere, she said: "The Green/EFA group demands that these funds be spent instead on energy research that is relevant to the future. A major focus should now be put on renewable sources of energy."
According to Greenpeace, the project, estimated to cost 10bn euro, will not generate any electricity, but will instead need massive amounts of energy to heat up. Although the nuclear industry poses as the solution to climate change, Greenpeace insist that the nuclear option would introduce a whole new set of nuclear risks, create a serious waste problem, emit large amounts of radioactive material and be available for use in the production of materials for nuclear weapons."With 10 billion, we could build 10,000MW offshore windfarms, delivering electricity for 7.5 million European households," said Jan Vande Putte, spokeperson for Greenpeace International. "Governments should not waste our money on a dangerous toy which will never deliver any useful energy. Instead, they should invest in renewable energy which is abundantly available, not in 2080 but today."
French Green party lawmaker Noël Mamère claims that more concrete efforts to fight present-day global warming will be neglected as a result of ITER: "This is not good news for the fight against the greenhouse effect because we're going to put ten billion euro towards a project that has a term of 30-50 years when we're not even sure it will be effective."
Ian Fells, an expert on energy conversion from the Royal Academy of Engineering in Britain believes that the success of the ITER nuclear fusion reactor would solve the world's energy problems "for the next 1,000 to 2,000 years". However, Fells also warns of the dangers: "In the course of the reaction it produces a lot of neutrons and they get into the actual fabric of the machine and over years it becomes radioactive, so there is still a problem of decommissioning."
The ten billion euro experimental reactor being constructed in Cadarache, southern France, will seek to turn seawater into fuel by mimicking the way the sun produces energy. The 500 megawatt ITER reactor will use deuterium, extracted from seawater, as its major fuel and a giant electromagnetic ring to fuse atomic nuclei at extremely high temperatures.
The ITER project began in 1985 but the scientific challenges and ongoing disputes between its partners concerning the location of the first reactor and the nature of its financing have caused repeated delays. At a meeting in Moscow on 20 June, officials from the six-partner ITER consortium including China, the 25-nation EU, Japan, Russia, South Korea and the United States chose Cadarache, near Marseille, over a rival bid to host the project from Japan.
The EU is to take on 40 percent of the project's cost, France will pay ten percent while the remaining five partners will invest ten percent each. Building the reactor is expected to take about ten years at a cost of 4.6 billion euros. However, some scientists estimate that the project could take significantly longer than foreseen at a far greater cost. Environmental campaign groups such as Greenpeace fear that pursuing ITER could prove ecologically hazardous and insist that money should be spent on more concrete and environmentally acceptable renewable energy projects.
EU official documents
- Europa:Press release: ITER and fusion energy research – your questions answered(28 June 2005)
- ITER website:homepage
- The Greens/European Free Alliance:Press release: France to build world's first experimental fusion reactor(28 June 2005)
- European Nuclear Society (ENS):Decision on ITER reactor “a significant boost” for nuclear industry(28 June 2005)
NGOs and Think-Tanks
- Greenpeace:Nuclear fusion reactor project in France: an expensive and senseless nuclear stupidity(28 June 2005)