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.”