Seven Governments Sign Nuclear Fusion Agreement
BRUSSELS, Belgium, May 24, 2006 (ENS) - A project to demonstrate the potential of nuclear fusion as an energy source moved a step closer to realization today as the seven governments involved in the research initialed an agreement on the construction, operation, and decommissioning of a research facility. Known as ITER, the project will attempt to harness the same type of energy which powers the Sun and other stars.
This morning, ministers representing China, the European Union, India, Japan, South Korea, Russia and the United States of America met in the European Commission’s Berlaymont Building in Brussels to initial the agreement they have been negotiating over the past year. They have selected a site for the construction and operation of ITER at Cadarache in southern France.
Their initials on the document opens the way to its signature by the governments concerned, expected to take place before the end of 2006, followed where needed by its ratification.
"Together we are forging a new model for large-scale global scientific and technical co-operation. We are sending an important message about seeing the value in working together to address our common challenges," Potocnik said.
Fusion has several attractions as an energy source - its basic fuels are abundant and available everywhere, and there are no greenhouse gas emissions.
As compared to nuclear fission, universally used today to generate nuclear power, there is no transportation of radioactive materials, no possibility of meltdown or runaway reactions, no long-lasting radioactive waste to be passed on to future generations.
But Friends of the Earth denounced the ITER research as "ill judged and irresponsible," especially in view of the €3.6 billion that the European Commission will spend on the project. Although seven governments are involved, the European Union will fund over one third of the total construction and operating costs of the ITER, through Euratom.
Silva Hermann, energy campaigner at Friends of the Earth Europe said, "Nuclear fusion may never be economically or technically practical. It is a new technique that has been a few decades away from reality for nearly 50 years. This goal of commercial viability has become a moving target and we have no guarantee that it will ever actually be reached."
The European Commission has its priorities wrong, said Hermann. "Investment in energy efficiency and renewables is the only reliable way to guarantee energy security. Giving billions of Euros to a single nuclear project that is so far from reality is ill judged and irresponsible," she said.
On April 1, the negotiators unanimously agreed on the proposal of European Union to designate an American scientist, Dr. Norbert Holtkamp as nominee to the principal technical management post under the Director-General of the prospective ITER Organization.
Coming after the designation in November 2005 of Ambassador Kaname Ikeda of Japan as the nominee director-general, this means that the core of the management team of the prospective ITER organization is now in place.
ITER is an experimental reactor which will reproduce the physical reaction of fusing the nuclei of atoms that occurs in the Sun and stars. Existing experiments have shown that it is possible to replicate this process on Earth. ITER aims to do this at a scale and in conditions that will demonstrate the scientific and technological feasibility of fusion as a practical energy source.
All of today's nuclear power plants split heavy uranium atoms to generate power. ITER will use fusion, which involves heating very lightweight atoms to above 100 million degrees Celsius - or 10 times the temperature of the Sun.
This creates a plasma gas in which particles that usually repel one another combine, and thereby yield enormous quantities of energy. By caging the hot plasma with powerful magnets, scientists aim to keep the process going in much the same way that the Sun, confined by gravity, burns on and on.
The development of the science and technology involved in this process is the basis of the European fusion program.
ITER scientists explain that nuclear fusion is safe for workers and for the population surrounding the ITER facility in France's Cadarache forest.
A fusion reactor is like a gas burner, they say, the fuel which is injected into the system is burned off. There is very little fuel in the reaction chamber at any given moment (about 1g in a volume of 1000 m3) and if the fuel supply is interrupted, the reactions only continue for a few seconds.
Any malfunction of the device would cause the reactor to cool and the reactions would stop, they say.
The basic fuels - deuterium and lithium – and the reaction product - helium - are not radioactive.
The intermediate fuel – tritium – is radioactive and decays very quickly, producing a very low energy electron - Beta radiation.
Nevertheless, the scientists explain, tritium would be harmful if it entered the body, so the facility will have very thorough safety facilities and procedures for the handling and storage of tritium.
As the tritium is produced in the reactor chamber itself, there are no issues regarding the transport of radioactive materials.
Extensive safety and environmental studies have led to the conclusion that a fusion reactor could be designed in such a way to ensure that any in-plant incident would not require the evacuation of the local population.
Still, critics are uneasy. Some say ITER will draw more power from the French electricity grid than it will produce. Others say it discourages conservation.
The French group Sortir du Nucléaire (Get Out of Nuclear) is the main French antinuclear coalition with a membership of over 700 organizations and more than 14,000 individuals. Spokesman Stéphane Lhomme told the "International Herald Tribune" last August, "There's a hidden message behind the ITER project. That message is, 'Don't change any of your consumption patterns because you'll soon have unlimited amounts of free power.' That's a big gamble."
Hermann of Friends of the Earth Europe sayd, "Even if fusion does come through as an option, it will still carry risks of proliferation and radioactive contamination."
Friends of the Earth Europe is calling upon the European Commission to withdraw from the fusion project. The group says funding should be channeled into EU research and development programs to develop sustainable and environmentally-friendly energy technologies, like solar, wind and biomass.
This proposal has yet to be approved by the European Council and the European Parliament, and Friends of the Earth Europe is calling on these institutions to reject the Euratom budget proposal.
In fiscal year 2006, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) allocated $25 million to ITER. President George W. Bush has requested $60 million for the project in fiscal year 2007.
"As partners in ITER," said U.S. Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman today, "we are pursuing the promise of unlimited, clean, safe, renewable and commercially available energy from nuclear fusion, which has the potential to significantly strengthen energy security at home and abroad."
Raymond Orbach, who signed the agreement as director of the DOE Office of Science, said, "Initialing this agreement brings us one step closer to a viable source of fusion power, with the potential to free the quickly growing global economy and population from the looming constraints of conventional energy supplies and their associated environmental effects."
Orbach called ITER "the first stand-alone, truly international, large-scale scientific research effort in the history of the world." The seven parties to the agreement represent more than half of the world's population, he notes.
Michael Mariotte, executive director of the Nuclear Information and Resource Service based in Washington, DC, has said, "The ITER fusion reactor is a big-science boondoggle that has no energy payback. ITER will divert billions of dollars away from real green energy solutions to the world's climate change crisis."