Week of June 7, 2004
Snapshot from the Field
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French or Japanese Fusion?
by JACK LYNE, Site Selection Executive Editor
After two decades, it's boiled down to either Cadarache, France, or Rokkasho, Japan, for the site of the US$12-billion International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER at www.iter.org).
Compared to "building an artificial sun on Earth" by Japanese officials, the project aims to bring nuclear fusion to the forefront as a clean-burning commercial fuel. Project researchers estimate that a mere 2.2 pounds (one kilogram) of nuclear-fusion fuel will produce as much energy as 22 million pounds (10 million kilograms) of fossil fuels - and with no greenhouse-gas emissions.
The ITER is an international nuclear-fusion collaboration first formed in 1985. Now composed of China, the European Union, Japan, Russia, South Korea and the United States, the ITER ranks as the world's second-largest international cooperative R&D project, trailing only the $100-billion International Space Station.
Right now, though, ITER cooperation more closely resembles colliding atoms. Members are split straight down the middle on which site should host the mega-project.
China, the EU and Russia want the ITER to go to Cadarache (www.iter.gouv.fr) in
Thousands of New Jobs,The winning site's payoff will include a huge research cluster, with thousands of high-level positions. But the host nation will also be expected to pay nearly half of the ITER's estimated $5 billion in construction costs, plus a big portion of operating expenses.
$5 Billion for Building Plant
Initially, the ITER site was supposed to be a done deal by now, with the location announcement scheduled for late last year. That didn't happen, though, after member voting ended in a 3-3 deadlock in Vienna, Austria.
"The parties have reached a strong consensus on a number of points," members said in a cautiously worded joint communiqué released on Dec. 20 of last year. "We have two excellent sites for ITER - so excellent, in fact, that we need further evaluation before making our decisions based on consensus."
ITER tabled the site decision. "We plan to hold follow-up ministerial meetings to reach consensus as quickly as possible, likely . . . in February," the communiqué explained. But the ITER's consensus-building plan remained vague.
That hasn't changed. The site selection is still pending.
Things may start to move soon, though. The ITER's six members are scheduled to reconvene later this month in Vienna for negotiations on finalizing the site.
EU, Japanese Have HeldThe Vienna sessions will perhaps flesh out the perception that the Japanese site may have moved to frontrunner status.
Three Negotiating Sessions
EU and Japanese delegations have met three times this year to break the impasse. Those negotiations have been held behind closed doors (as have all ITER talks). Officials have made public statements after each negotiating round, but they've offered little of substance.
EU Director General of Research Achilleas Mitsos, for example, said after a session that ended on March 23, "We must continue the dialogue in the interest of the two parties."
"I would not employ the word impasse because there are prospects in the discussions," he continued. "But if you await immediate answers, then, yes, I would say that there is for the moment a dead end. . . . But we are in a hurry, because we do not want to miss the [opportunity] related to ITER."
A Tradeoff in the Works?Japan may be poised to seize its opportunity in Vienna. The Japanese delegation will reportedly offer to spend $897 million more than it originally proposed. About half of that increased funding would go to increase its commitment to guaranteeing ITER construction costs. That would push Japan's construction commitment to $3.35 billion.
Politically, though, the other half of Japan's heftier funding may carry the most clout. Tokyo would allegedly use that capital to build ITER-related research facilities in France - a tradeoff that EU negotiators supposedly offered.
But that swap-off scenario at this point is only speculation, reported late last month by Tokyo-based Nihon Keizai. The newspaper cited as its source an anonymous member of the Japanese site negotiations team.
Still, the Vienna negotiations may well produce some sort of tradeoff linked to another major fusion bargaining chip: the International Fusion Material Irradiation Facility (IFMIF). Jointly planned by the EU, Japan, Russia and the U.S., the IFMIF would help develop high-energy neutrons to test materials and components for future fusion reactors.
Japan has indicated that it won't likely be able to fund both the ITER and the IFMIF. Planning for the IFMIF's particulars, though, is at a very early stage. And that would seem to leave any sort of deal to informally award the IFMIF to the EU an iffy proposition.
Fusion Power Seemingly LimitlessThe maneuvering to land the ITER is obviously consuming considerable energies. That output pales, though, in comparison to the project's power potential.
Conceivably, nuclear fusion could provide a virtually limitless energy supply. And that supply could provide a lower-cost, cleaner-burning substitute to replace the fossil fuels expected to run short in about 50 years.
Fusion power's key element is an isotope of hydrogen, an abundant fuel source that can be readily extracted from water. But nuclear fusion doesn't work like nuclear power plants' systems, splitting large atoms to release energy. Instead, nuclear fusion produces energy by forcing light atoms' cores together.
Fusion reactors heat magnetically confined gases to temperatures higher than 212 million degrees Fahrenheit (100 million degrees Celsius). At temperatures that extreme - more than six times hotter than the sun's core - gases turn to plasma. The super-heated plasma particles then fuse, forming high-speed neutrons (as well as helium). Nuclear-fusion plants use the heat from those hyperactive neutrons (slowed by lithium) to generate electricity.
Or at least that's the best-case scenario. Thus far, however, all nuclear-fusion experiments have consumed more energy than they've produced.
The ITER is aiming to alter that equation. That reactor, project scientists insist, will be the first-ever to immediately produce much more power than it consumes. Its goal is to produce 500 megawatts of fusion power for 500 seconds (or longer) during each experiment. Once that's done, it will demonstrate the feasibility of a commercial reactor's essential technologies, ITER officials assert.
Canada Pulled Out in '03, U.S. in '98But first, there's the little matter of settling on the ITER's site.
And the project still faces a lengthy time horizon even after that issue is put to bed. Construction will likely begin in 2006 at the earliest, project officials estimate, with the facility operational in 2014.
After that, fusion research will go on for as long as 20 years. The U.S. Dept. of Energy doesn't expect commercial fusion reactors to be online until 2040 at the earliest.
The project could be further complicated if any ITER members pull out. And dropouts aren't unprecedented.
Canada, for example, was once an ITER member and proposed Clarington, Ontario, as the reactor site. But Canada withdrew from the organization late last year. Minister of Natural Resources R. John Efford called the withdrawal "a difficult decision," but emphasized that "Canada will not table a revised offer to host the project, nor participate as non-host."
Then there's the U.S.'s out-and-in role. The founding ITER member dropped out in 1998, following an engineering study that put reactor construction costs at $10 billion, twice the current price. Congress instructed the Energy Dept. (www.energy.gov) to withdraw, then sharply cut federal fusion research funding.
In January of 2003, the U.S. again became an ITER member.
Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham called the project "a cost-effective way to proceed with fusion research worldwide, with the collaborating parties sharing in the project's cost of construction and operation."
Now, though, the question du jour is whether that sharing will be in Cadarache or Rokkasho.
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