MEPs question cash-strapped ITER in light of Fukushima

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EU nuclear fusion project ITER should be abandoned because it is set to be built in an earthquake zone, like the stricken Fukushima plant in Japan, MEPs will argue today (20 April) as last-chance proposals for the project to pay off a €1.3 billion funding shortfall are tabled for discussion.

Last year, a European Commission compromise suggested that a third of the ITER shortfall should come from the budget for the Seventh Framework Programme (FP7), with the remainder coming from the EU's unspent budget funds.

But the Parliament refused to sign off on the deal, with Green MEPs opposing the technology in principle and other members claiming they had insufficient powers to scrutinise the project.

Under new shortfall payment plans released today with the Commission's 2012 budget proposals – substantially the same as last year's compromise agreement – only unspent funds from the current year will now be available.

Commission officials are concerned that such funds will be harder to tap into this year, since it is the last year of the current budgetary cycle. The shortfall is needed to pay for construction work on the fusion chamber to begin in France. But the Parliament is gearing up for another battle over the money.

South of France: Earthquake zone!

The energy adviser to the Greens/European Free Alliance, Michel Raquet, also questioned the location of the project.

"If you look at the Fukushima catastrophe, it happened as a result of the nuclear reactor being built in a seismic zone. Cadarache is also a seismic area and we [the party] have to compare what is comparable."

Swedish MEP Göran Färm, budget spokesman for the Socialists & Democrats group in the European Parliament, said that his group was not against the project as such, but "we are not in favour of the current Commission solution on the table, meaning that the EU should partly use appropriations allocated to the FP7 to finance ITER," he said. 

Commission officials said that there could be no comparison between Fukushima and ITER.

"There is no link between [nuclear] fission and fusion other than a reaction of particles […] The fusion chamber is entirely different [from a nuclear reactor] and would turn itself off automatically if there were any problem," a spokesperson said.

ITER insists: No danger!

"Many incidental and accidental scenarios have been analysed for ITER, in particular the combination of an earthquake and external flooding […] it was concluded that no accident scenario at ITER would result in counter measures for the surrounding populations," said ITER spokesman Michel Claessens.

Delaying the construction timeline for ITER would allow the EU to spread its costs over a long period but would cause friction with other ITER partners such as China, Japan and the US.

A US source close to the project told EURACTIV on condition of anonymity that "it will be a serious concern if they [the Commission] were unable to come up to their commitments". He said that the Commission "understands what is at stake," warning that "scepticism about the project would return quickly in the US" if no payment were agreed.

The European Parliament's budget committee will visit Cadarache on a fact-finding mission from 16-18 May, which will be a critical showcase for the project as the shortfall debate gets underway.

According to Michel Raquet, energy adviser with the Green/European Free Alliance group in the European Parliament, ITER parts are being made in Japan. Since the car manufacturing industry has been affected by Fukushima, preventing exports, it would be strange if the core nuclear industry had not been affected.

"More people will be nervous about this project [after Fukushima]," added Raquet, describing ITER as "a non-project".

"We do not want €1.3 billion to be spent on this. If companies wanted to pay for it privately, that would be another matter," he said.

Socialists & Democrats budget spokesman and Swedish MEP Göran Färm said "finding a solution to the financing of ITER is equally important to us as it is for the Commission and the member states".

According to Färm, the S&D group is not against the project, but is not in favour of the current Commission solution under which the EU should partly use funds from the 7th Research (non-nuclear) Framework Programme to finance ITER.

"Other sources of funding can be found if EU countries are willing to give the EU budget the flexibility it deserves to respond to unforseen circumstances," Färm added, saying that member states have to be consistent and face the budgetary consequences of the political commitments they are undertaking.

"The money assigned for the research programme is extremely important, especially in this present austerity climate, with an alarming drop in public investments. It supports projects which otherwise would not be funded at member-state level, or actions such as mobilty of research, which are instrumental if we want to deliver smart, inclusive and sustainable growth in accordance with EU 2020," Färm explained.

Contradicting Raquet, ITER spokesman Michel Claessens noted that anything like Fukushima would not happen in ITER.

"Without going into the technical details, this is why it could not. First, fusion physics and technology is fundamentally different from fission. Secondly, fusion devices essentially have no fuel inside their vessel. For the reaction to be produced, no more than a few grams of Deuterium-Tritium are injected in the Vacuum Vessel.

"Thirdly, thermal power induced in a vacuum vessel is low. Even if no active cooling of the vacuum vessel is provided (for example if a blackout occurred and the cooling stopped working) the resulting temperature would not threaten the integrity of the vacuum vessel.

"Fourthly, fusion reactions cannot be maintained (on Earth) spontaneously. Any disturbance of the ideal conditions of the fusion process (such as a power failure) stops the reactions. A runaway reaction is impossible," he explained.

The ITER project is an experimental thermonuclear reactor based in Cadarache 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 question marks over safety, according to environmentalists, who want the funding diverted to renewable energy research.

The initiative began as a US-Russian project in the 1980s but now includes the EU, China, India, Japan and South Korea. 45% of the funding for the project 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 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 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. The €1.3 billion shortfall must be secured to enable construction of the chamber to begin next year.

  • 16-18 May: Parliament's budget committee to visit Cadarache on fact-finding mission.
  • Before end of summer: Parliament to discuss shortfall proposals.
  • By end of year: Failure to agree on shortfall payment will delay ITER project.

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