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. Accord Signed In France On Breakthrough Nuclear Reactor

French President Jacques Chirac. Photo courtesy of AFP.
by Staff Writers
Paris (AFP) Nov 21, 2006
The EU and six nations signed a treaty Tuesday launching a multibillion-dollar experimental nuclear fusion research project, aimed at emulating the power of the sun to provide limitless, clean energy. "This is a new step in an exceptional adventure," French President Jacques Chirac said after leading the signing ceremony in Paris that ended decades of tortuous negotiations.

Representatives from the European Union, China, India, Japan, Russia, South Korea and the United States signed the pact on the construction of the 10-billion-euro (12.8 billion dollar) reactor.

Originally called the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor but now known officially by its initials ITER (or "the way" in Latin), the facility is to be built in Cadarache, in southern France, over a decade starting 2008.

The project aims to research a clean and limitless alternative to dwindling fossil fuel reserves by testing nuclear fusion technologies.

Instead of splitting the atom -- the principle behind current nuclear plants -- the project seeks to harness nuclear fusion: the power of the sun and the stars achieved by fusing together atomic nuclei.

If it is successful, a prototype commercial reactor will be built, and if that works, fusion technology will be rolled out across the world.

Chirac said the experimental reactor was "a hand held out to future generations" and predicted that, if it proved successful, "we will be able to derive as much energy from a litre of seawater as from a litre of petrol or a kilo of coal."

The EU is to put up half the cost of building the reactor, with the rest evenly divided among the other parties. The project will employ 400 scientists, two-thirds of them non-French.

Following years of wrangling, Japan agreed in 2005 to withdraw its bid to host the project -- in exchange for 20 percent of staff posts including the director general's job.

A Japanese engineer turned ambassador, Kaname Ikeda, was named earlier this month to head the project.

European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, who was also in Paris Tuesday, called the signing "a major event" and a step forward to finding new energy sources that did not cause climate change.

In a fusion reaction, energy is released when light atomic nuclei - the hydrogen isotopes deuterium and tritium - are fused together to form heavier atomic nuclei. To use controlled fusion reactions on Earth as an energy source, it is necessary to heat a gas to temperatures exceeding 100 million Celsius - many times hotter than the centre of the sun.

One of the attractions of fusion is the tiny amount of fuel needed. The release of energy from a fusion reaction is 10 million times greater than from a typical chemical reaction, such as burning a fossil fuel. But the project has been criticised by environmental groups like Greenpeace, who argue that the enormous cost will suck funds away from other areas of alternative energy research, with no guarantee that an effective method of simulating and harnessing the fusion process will ever be found.

earlier related report
US signs international fusion energy agreement
Representing the United States, Dr. Raymond L. Orbach, Under Secretary for Science of the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), today joined counterparts from China, the European Union, India, Japan, the Republic of Korea and the Russian Federation to sign an agreement to build the international fusion energy project known as ITER.

"The energy that powers the stars is moving closer to becoming a new source of energy for the Earth through the technology represented by ITER," U.S. Secretary of Energy Samuel W. Bodman said. "The ITER Members represent over half of the world's population. The U.S. is proud to be part of this partnership, and to join in the pursuit of nuclear fusion as a source of clean, safe, renewable and commercially deployable energy for the future."

Fusion energy is an important component of President Bush's Advanced Energy Initiative (AEI), given fusion's potential to become an attractive long-range option for the U.S. clean energy portfolio. In FY 2006, DOE allocated $25 million to ITER and the President, as part of the AEI, has requested $60 million for the project in FY 2007.

"Signing this agreement brings us one step closer to a viable source of fusion power," Dr. Orbach said. "ITER also is the first stand alone, truly international, large-scale scientific research effort in the history of the world. It will surely serve as a model for future collaborative large scale science projects," he added.

ITER will be constructed at Cadarache, France and is expected to be completed in 2015. The site is adjacent to the main research center of the French Atomic Energy Commission. The EU, as the host, will provide 45.46 percent of the construction phase funding.

The U.S., as a non-host partner, will participate in the construction phase at the level of 9.09 percent. The U.S. contribution to ITER will consist of about 80 percent in-kind components, and about 20 percent in cash to a central fund and for personnel assigned to the project at the ITER site. DOE laboratories will subcontract with industry to build the components of ITER for which the U.S. is responsible. The total value of the U.S. contribution is $1.122 billion.

Fusion energy, created when light atomic nuclei are fused together at temperatures greater than those of the interior of stars and far above the melting point of any solid container, could provide significant amounts of electricity and also generate hydrogen that could power fuel cell vehicles of the future. Fusion power has the following advantages:

Fusion is clean: It produces negligible atmospheric emissions and zero greenhouse gas emissions. Fusion is safe: Reactors cannot "melt down," and do not generate the high-level, long-lasting radioactive waste associated with nuclear fission.

Fusion is renewable: Commercial fusion reactors would use lithium and deuterium, both readily available natural resources. President Bush announced on January 30, 2003, that the U.S. was joining the negotiations for the construction and operation of this major international research project, whose mission is to demonstrate the scientific and technological feasibility of clean fusion energy.

The President's initiative in joining ITER allows the United States to share the combined experience and knowledge that will result from the design, construction and operation of this vital project at a greatly reduced cost to the individual partners. The U.S. was one of the original participants in the early design and R and D for ITER, and U.S. participation in the ITER construction and operation phases capitalizes on the previous investment.

Following the initialing of the Agreement in Brussels on May 24, 2006, which marked the conclusion of negotiations, DOE transmitted to Congress the final initialed text to begin the 120-day review required by the Energy Policy Act of 2005. DOE also briefed committees of jurisdiction in both the House and the Senate during the negotiations to facilitate the 120-day review. On September 29, 2006, House Science Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert wrote to Secretary Bodman,

"I am satisfied that the Agreement on the Establishment of the ITER International Fusion Energy Organization for the Joint Implementation of the ITER Project has been negotiated in accordance with the requirements listed in paragraph 972(c)(3) [of the Energy Policy Act of 2005]. Under Secretary Orbach and his staff are to be congratulated for their hard work over the past several years in securing this agreement."

President Bush's Advanced Energy Initiative represents a 22 percent increase in clean-energy research at the Department of Energy that will accelerate breakthroughs in the way our cars, homes and businesses are powered. For FY '07, the President requested more than $2.1 billion in AEI funding for research into cutting-edge technologies with a goal of reducing oil consumption by 5 million barrels a day by 2025 and producing clean electricity for millions of homes.

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