ITER gold medal would be money well spent

There are some projects so big, so ambitious and so challenging — not to mention expensive — that they make the everyday business of most engineers look reassuringly manageable.

We have heard a lot over the last few weeks about the mounting bill faced by the UK for the London Olympics in 2012 — now about £3bn and rising for the Olympic Park alone.

Staging the games requires construction and engineering on a grand scale and presents the additional challenge of an inflexible deadline with the prospect of international disgrace if it is missed.

Fishing out The Engineer’s crystal ball again, we offer the following prediction. The costs will carry on rising and the Olympics will happen. Admittedly, you do not need to be much of a soothsayer to come up with this particular version of the future — it is what happens every time.

The point about the Olympic Games is that despite the cost, the controversy and the aggravation, the prize is viewed as worth it.

The chance to spend a couple of weeks at the centre of the world’s sporting stage and all the economic benefits that we are promised will flow from the games is considered enough.

So with the big prize in mind, let’s consider another gigantic, multi-billion pound project that has been in the news over the past few days.

This is ITER, the international fusion reactor project that a consortium including the EU, the US, Japan and China agreed to fund to the tune of some £7bn over the next 10 years.

The goal of ITER is to discover whether nuclear fusion, the process that keeps the sun burning, can be harnessed to provide humanity with a limitless source of energy that is virtually free from harmful emissions.

If the project succeeds — and it is a big if, because the scientific and engineering challenges are formidable — then the benefits would be unprecedented.

Some have railed at the amount of cash the ITER experiment will eat up in pursuit of what even its supporters admit is a calculated gamble that, even if successful, will not deliver anything until at least the middle of the century.

Critics say the £7bn, which is only a first instalment to get the project off the ground, would be better spent on technologies that will deliver cleaner energy sources far sooner.

But let’s imagine that in the time it takes to stage another 10 Olympics, and for the combined cost of all those events, ITER wins the ultimate gold medal.

That sounds like value for money and would leave a legacy for the planet greater than every Olympics in history.

Andrew Lee, editor