France Edges Out Japan To Win Futuristic Nuclear Project

France has been chosen to host the experimental ITER nuclear fusion reactor, a multi-billion-dollar project designed to emulate the power of the Sun, according to an agreement reached on June 27 in Moscow.

Ending years of wrangling, the six ITER partners -- the EU, the U.S., Russia, Japan, South Korea and China -- reached an agreement after Japan withdrew its bid to host the 10-billion-euro (US$12 billion), 30-year project, clearing the way for the Cadarache site in France to act as host. Under Tuesday's agreement, the EU will pay 50% of the cost of the project, with the rest shared out between the five other partners. Washington had supported the Japanese site, Rokkasho-mura, and Seoul, while Cadarache in France was favored by Moscow and Beijing.

The vision behind the ITER project is of a world where energy will be cheap, clean, safe and almost infinite. 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.

ITER was conceived at an international summit in 1985 as a test bench to see whether fusion can be taken out of the lab and help meet the world's energy needs from the middle of the 21st century. The science behind the project presents an immense technological challenge, since fusing together atomic nuclei will require a gas field heated to 100 million degrees inside an intense magnetic field. But the result, scientists hope, will be a plentiful energy supply that will compensate for diminishing reserves of oil, coal and natural gas. One of the hydrogen isotopes needed to fuel the process is found in water while the other can be man-made. If this experimental machine is successful, a demo fusion power plant would be built in the mid-2030s, and -- if all goes well -- the first commercial fusion plant would be created mid-century to assess economic feasibility.

Copyright Agence France-Presse, 2005

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