Brussels tables alternative funding plan for ITER

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Faced with a deadlock over the EU's 2011 budget, the European Commission will present today (26 November) "an alternative approach" to fund the bloc's multi-billion euro ITER project for nuclear fusion. 

In a working paper, the European Commission admits that the governance and funding of ITER are "not well-suited to the direct management of the EU institutions".

It also makes clear that it does not intend to pour additional money into the project if new problems arise.

The alternative plan will be discussed by EU ministers in charge of competitiveness at their meeting in Brussels today.

Since its launch in 2001, the estimated cost of completing the ambitious project have rocketed from an initial €5.9 billion to €16 billion (see 'Background'). In a rush to close the growing funding gap, the Commission committed itself in July this year to paying an extra €1.4 billion, using unspent resources from the 2010 EU budget and redeploying funds originally earmarked for other projects.

But with a row ongoing between the European Parliament and EU member states over the 2011 budget, the EU risks failing to fulfil these commitments.

In fact, if there is no agreement on the 2011 budget by the end of the year, the Commission will also be unable to use unspent resources from the EU's 2010 budget.

"If an agreement on ITER financing is not reached in 2010, the possibility to make use of unbudgeted margins under the 2010 expenditure ceilings will be lost," reads the Commission's draft compromise proposal on the 2011 budget, seen by EURACTIV.

Without a deal, "the EU will not be able to guarantee its renewed commitment to the project, which could also represent a set-back in terms of credibility of the Union vis-à-vis its international partners," the paper adds.

EU member-state representatives meeting in Brussels yesterday (25 November) reached an agreement  to guarantee the provision of extra funding needed for ITER. However, the details of the agreement are unclear and will in any case need to be given the green light by the European Parliament.

Revising the EU's financial commitment

Faced with these uncertainties, the EU executive is considering "an alternative approach" based on the principle that in future there should be "no assumption that the EU should make up any shortfalls," reads the working paper on EU ministers' table.

Brussels favours a solution in "which the EU budget would make a stable contribution in the form of a fixed annual contribution," reads the document, entitled 'Towards a robust management and governance of the ITER project'.

A funding system with fixed contributions would address uncertainties over the future EU budget, which might have to run in emergency mode next year and is also faced with long-term austerity pressure due to the financial and economic crises.

A new governance for ITER?

The Commission is also proposing to make change to the governance of the project to boost its decision-making power.

Brussels is complaining that the current set-up does not give a fair share of power to the EU executive, despite the crucial financial role played by the EU budget in funding the reactor's construction.

A so-called Joint European Undertaking called 'Fusion for Energy' (F4E) is in charge of the EU's part of the international project. F4E is based in Barcelona and is predominantly controlled by national capitals. The EU's 27 member states and Switzerland hold 65 of a total of 70 votes on its Governing Board, leaving the Commission with just the remaining five.

Brussels claims that the specific nature of the project "confers to the Commission a special responsibility which needs to be reflected in the governance," reads the working paper given to EU ministers.

"In this context, the services of the Commission should examine whether in the long run the legal status of a Joint Undertaking represents the best approach for managing a project such as ITER and whether changes are needed in the future," warns the document.

The ITER project is an experimental thermonuclear reactor that seeks to replicate the processes at the core of stars and the Sun.

Fusion research is touted by its proponents as a potential source of cheap, abundant and carbon-free fuel. However, sceptics say fusion has been a pipe dream for decades and that there is scant evidence that it will yield practical results. There are also question marks over safety, according to environmentalists, who want the funding diverted to renewable energy research.

45% of the funding for the project comes from Europe, with a sizeable contribution from France, which won the right to host the project in the southern city of Cadarache. The remainder of the money is provided by the scheme's other members. The initiative began as a US-Russian project in the 1980s but now includes the EU, China, India, Japan and South Korea.

In 2001, total construction costs were estimated at around €5.9 billion and construction was expected to be completed over a ten-year period. However, this has almost tripled to €16 billion, with critics claiming that the final bill could be even higher.

Construction is yet to begin.

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