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Nuclear Fusion Reactor Decision Must Wait

November 11, 2004

The six nations planning to build the Iter, world's biggest nuclear fusion reactor ended their latest meeting with no agreement on a site for the facility.

The countries of the Iter Consortium are deadlocked over whether to build the reactor in France or Japan.

Iter - the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor - will be the largest global science and engineering project of the next decade, apart from the International Space Station.

The Consortium includes the European Union, US, Russia, China, Japan, and South Korea.

The EU, Russia and China want the reactor to be built at Cadarache in France, but the US, South Korea and Japan support a Japanese site, Rokkasho-mura.

"The two potential host parties, European Union and Japan, presented the results of recent intensive bilateral discussions on the balance of roles and responsibilities of host and non-host in the joint realization of Iter in the frame of a six-party international co-operation," a statement issued after the IAEA gathering said.

The EU could look to other nations outside the Iter consortium to come in and help fund the work at Cadarache in the south of France. These might include India, Switzerland and Canada, which itself recently withdrew from the Iter process.

In terms of the physics and huge amounts of energy involved, the project would be akin to building a star on Earth.

In a fusion reaction, energy is produced when light atoms - the hydrogen isotopes deuterium and tritium - are fused together to form heavier atoms.

To use controlled fusion reactions on Earth as an energy source, it is necessary to heat a gas to temperatures exceeding 100 million degrees Celsius - many times hotter than the centre of the Sun (itself a giant fusion reactor). Fusion, although it does produce radioactive waste, does not generate the quantities of long-term high-level radiotoxic waste that burdens nuclear fission.

The technical requirements to do this are immense. But the rewards, if it can be made to work at a commercial level, are extremely attractive.