Fusion project funding dispute threatens Horizon 2020

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An ongoing tussle between the EU institutions over the future funding of a controversial nuclear fusion project – which will come under the spotlight during the Danish EU presidency – threatens to hack into the European Commission’s €85-billion Horizon 2020 budget proposal.

The funding dispute centres around the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor project based at the Cadarache research facility in southern France. Construction is to begin this year.

The ITER reactor aims to replicate the kind of fusion that occurs in the sun, creating cheap and abundant energy that does not rely on fossil fuels.

Long-term funding unclear

At the end of 2011, a €1.3-billion shortfall in funding for the ITER project was secured under the Polish presidency, after the European Council and Parliament agreed to use unused EU funds to plug the gap.

Funding for the next EU budget – which runs from 2014 to 2020 – has not yet been agreed and the EU institutions have opposing views on the future of the fusion project. ITER is governed by the Euratom Treaty and therefore outside the immediate responsibility of the EU.

The Commission wants ITER  to be funded under separate cover by the EU’s member states. The Commission is broadly backed by the Parliament.

Although some member states want to keep ITER funding inside the EU's budget, others prefer to have it outside, with still others wanting the issue debated further. Meantime, the cost of the project has soared from an original estimate of €5 billion to €16 billion.

Commission fears ITER could jeopardise Horizon

The Commission fears that including ITER within the EU's general budget will jeopardise its proposed €85 billion framework programme for research, since the money would largely be extracted from the existing research proposals.

The ongoing debate about future funding will track parallel negotiations on the size of the next EU budget, known as the multiannual financial framework of MFF. The budget negotiations are set to run throughout the year spanning the Danish and Cypriot EU presidencies.

A spokesman for the EU Commissioner for Industry and Entrepreneurship told EURACTIV: "We proposed to take ITER out of the MFF because we believe this is the best way to ensure continuing financial support for ITER without exposing the EU budget to unexpected rising costs of such projects. It is now for member states to react to our proposal. Let's give them the necessary time to agree on what is the widest EU issue to negotiate, then we'll see.”

Helga Nowotny, president of the European Research Council – one of the research institutes set to enjoy a boost of funding under the Horizon proposals – told EURACTIV: “Nothing is definitive in times of crisis and moreover, the figures [for Horizon] are those proposed by the European Commission. They still have to be confirmed in lengthy negotiations with the European Parliament and Council.”

“I hope that it will be kept out of the multiannual financial framework so that people realise that it is an unrealistic endeavour,” said Belgian Green MEP Philippe Lamberts. “Our opposition to this project has been consistent. It is a white elephant, is not expected to deliver any energy until 50 years from now, and it’s a moving target which we cannot afford.”                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                               

The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor is an experimental project at the Cadarache research facility in southern France. The ITER reactor aims to replicate the kind of fusion that occurs in the sun as an abundant source of energy. The French site saw off rival bids from Japan, Spain and Canada.

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 pipedream for decades and there remains scant evidence that it will yield practical results. There are also questions over safety, according to environmentalists, who want the funding diverted to renewable energy research.

The initiative began as a US-Russian project and now includes the EU, China, India, Japan and South Korea. Some 45% of funding comes from Europe, with a sizeable contribution from France. The remainder of the money is contributed by the other members.

In 2001, total construction costs were estimated at around €5.9 billion and building was expected to be completed in 10 years. The estimated cost has risen to €16 billion, with critics claiming that the final bill could be even higher.

Construction is scheduled to begin in 2012, leading critics to call for the project to be shelved before it gathers further momentum. However, advocates point out that ITER is the subject of an international agreement which would be difficult to break.

2012: Multiannual financial framework to be agreed, probably by end of year, ITER funding discussions will run in parallel.

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