Power Politics

If the EU fails to resolve a deadlock in its choice of host country for the world’s greatest nuclear fusion research project, it could lose out to Japan. Rob Coppinger reports.

Japan is on the verge of winning the world’s ‘largest scientific endeavour’ from under the noses of its European competitors, thanks to indecision at the heart of the EU.The global competition to secure the contract to build and run the world’s first prototype of a commercial fusion reactor will be decided in Vienna on 5 December. The chosen site will attract huge international investment in technology research and if successful become the birthplace of a new multibillion-pound industry.

The candidate host nations have been narrowed down to Canada, Japan and a European site either in Spain or France. However, the failure of the Europeans to decide which of the two should take its bid forward is likely to persuade the project members to select Japan as winner.

Sources within the EU Commission described negotiations as deadlocked, following the last meeting in November of the Competitiveness Council (the industry and research council that will make the final decision on the host country). One official, who declined to be identified, said there was a real fear that unless a decision is made by next week’s meeting the project will go to Japan.

The head of the French government’s delegation to the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) project, Christian Poncet, is equally concerned that Japan could win the contract by default. ‘The most important thing is how can we win against Japan,’ he said. ‘The Japanese site and project are very strong. Every aspect of their project is strong: science, finance, administration. They have done what they have to do.’The Japanese site offers nothing in terms of technological superiority, but is likely to float to the top due to the political and economic incompetence of its competitors. This includes Canada’s bid, which is also in danger of not reaching the decision table due to unresolved financial problems.

The Vienna meeting of the ITER project, which will start on December 4, represents the culmination of technological and political negotiations since 1992. Its members include the EU, US, Canada, China, Russia, South Korea and Japan.The project has suffered a number of setbacks, not least the decision by the US, under the Clinton administration, to pull out due to the spiralling potential cost of the project. However, following a substantial redesign of the proposed reactor, the US joined the project once again. Its return has done much to spread the final cost, but was too late for the country to bid to host the project.

Each of the countries involved will build a different component part of the reactor. The host nation, meanwhile, will benefit from around $900m (£534m) of investment in preparing the site and surrounding facilities, construction and personnel. The annual operating costs of the centre over its 20-year lifetime are estimated to be over $200m (£120m).

Fusion power offers the prospect of unlimited and relatively clean energy, and could be the answer to many of the world’s energy problems. The largest existing fusion reactor, the Joint European Torus (or Tokamak) reactor based in Oxfordshire, produced 16MW of thermal energy in 1997. JET tested many of the theories and technologies necessary for fusion power, and it forms the basis of the ITER project.

The JET fusion reactor depends on a magnetic field to control a gas that is heated and pressurised to the point where fusion occurs. The process requires large amounts of energy to initiate and is difficult to sustain for any useful length of time.

The ITER reactor, which will be twice the size of JET, aims to achieve a more useful amount of energy from fusion power, the key being to sustain the plasma and generate more energy than is put in. The hope is that ITER will produce around 500MW, or 10 times more energy than is put in. However, for future commercial use a more powerful reactor would have to be built that can achieve excess energy levels comparable to existing power plants, in the region of 1000MW.

Individuals close to the project believed that ITER would be based in Europe, including the UK government’s chief scientific adviser, Prof Sir David King, who spoke to The Engineer in October. Previously we reported that other sources within ITER were confident that Canada was the favourite, because its bid was ‘wholly commercial’ with no government involvement. However, the Canadians soon saw it as necessary to involve their government, but this brought with it a new set of problems.

Murray Stewart, president of ITER Canada, said getting final approval from government was a major problem. ‘Canada put the first offer in to host ITER in 2001. Last December we decided that the financial package would not be valid so we decided to retool it. In May of this year the local government of Ontario agreed to fund 50 per cent of the new proposal. Since May we have been walking through the federal government decision process. As yet there is no federal cabinet approval and we won’t be considered if we don’t make a decision.’

According to Stewart the retirement of Canada’s prime minister, Jean Chrétien, has complicated the situation even further. This took place on 15 November but he won’t be replaced until February, which has thrown the governing party into a leadership debate and put major decisions on hold.

Stewart added that Chrétien’s cabinet may make a decision once the Europeans select a site. That Canadian decision must be taken before the December 4 ITER meeting.Meanwhile, the EU’s next meeting to decide upon its site is on November 27. Talks between France and Spain and the member states have been ongoing since receipt of a site evaluation report produced by Prof King in March.

The report evaluated the relative merits of the sites, taking account of the geology, costs, host commitments and the impact on nuclear fusion research in Europe. It concluded that both were as good as each other.

Despite the nine months of talks the Europeans continue to be deadlocked. Of the present 15 member states no one is willing to publicly back either of the two contenders.

The Italian embassy’s science attache Professor Salvetor Aloj said that because Italy was holding the EU presidency it was strictly neutral. But he indicated that the UK was supporting Spain because it agrees with the Spanish view that there should be two European sites in the competition.

‘Blair’s view is that it will be fair to go with both sites,’ he said. But the other EU members have wanted France and Spain to negotiate directly with each other to decide who goes forward.

However, Dr. Carlos Alejaldre, director of Spain’s national laboratory for fusion, said it was in Europe’s interest to have two sites. ‘Europe has two very good sites and the way to maximise the chances of ITER coming to Europe is to put them both forward. We should not limit ourselves.’

It is thought by ITER Europe insiders that Spain favours the two-site option because the US is expected to back it over France, and would bring all its superpower pressure to bear for the country to win out.

Most of the other EU states want only one site to go forward. To reach a decision the European Commission has been called upon to add weight to some of the criteria used in King’s evaluation report. Greece’s Competitiveness Council representative, Prof Dimitrios Deniosis, the country’s general secretary of research, said that in Greece’s view France and Spain could not be left to come to a decision.

EU commissioner for research Philippe Busquin has also stated that only one site can be put forward. ‘This [negotiation between France and Spain] does not seem feasible any more. There is no way back. We are trying to persuade the Commission to provide some legal process that will take us out of this consensus process. The concern is that only a process of some majority decision with the Commission qualifying the King report can work.’

This would enable the council to vote on the matter and make a clear choice. However, the Commission is opposed to this because choosing which criteria get what weight would show a preference for Spain or France and sour its working relationship with whichever nation lost the vote.

And the two nations have very different strengths, according to King’s report. France is said to have the fusion research needed by the project. France’s nuclear research site is in Cadarache in south-east France, and its engineers have achieved various fusion research milestones with their Tore Supra fusion reactor.

The technologies Cadarache has developed will be combined with advances from the UK’s JET project to create the ITER reactor. Poncet said he was hopeful France could win because scientific expertise is all-important. ‘We are confident,’ he said, ‘since the King evaluation places science and technology as more advantageous than other criteria.’Spain’s site, meanwhile, has no pre-existing fusion facilities. However, the country offers lower build costs, with savings of up to e152m (£105m). The ITER Joint Assessment of Specific Sites evaluation, carried out in late 2002, found that of all the ITER candidates Spain would be the cheapest.

One diplomatic solution to the impasse is the idea that whichever country wins, the other receives some kind of ‘compensation’. Both the Spanish and the French are vague on the issue of compensation. Poncet indicated that Spain could receive ITER-related work. ‘ITER is not the only centre of research. It has many aspects. ITER will be an international organisation.’

Another member state official, who preferred not to be identified, said that the UK or Germany could help with deciding who wins and who gets what compensation. Germany is seen as France’s closest ally in Europe and Britain is believed to support Spain, along with the US.

The US left the project in 1999 during President Clinton’s administration due to cost concerns. The reactor was then estimated to cost $12.5bn (£8bn).

The US rejoined in February of this year after a redesign that lowered the construction cost to around £3bn, and the US government has since indicated that it wants to play as large a role as possible.

As well as the US decision to join, China also became a member at the February meeting of ITER. China has been in discussions to join for many years and finally announced its intention in January. South Korea joined this summer.

With Canada out of the running, Europe’s experience in fusion research made it the favourite to host ITER. However, without a European consensus at the ballot, their vote will be split between France and Spain, allowing the Japanese proposal to win.

Whether it is Japan, Spain or France the project envisages an operational experimental fusion reactor by 2014. If successful this could lead to the development of the first commercial reactor to produce an abundant and relatively clean source of energy by 2040.

The ‘world’s largest scientific endeavour’

Engineers from Canada, the US, the EU, China, Japan, South Korea and Russia are working on what has been called ‘the world’s largest scientific endeavour’, according to Prof Sir David King, the government’s chief scientific adviser.

Considered the next major step for the development of fusion power, the $10bn (£6bn) International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor project aims to build a reactor that could be a prototype for commercial fusion power stations.

With the issue of global warming, carbon emissions and concerns over fission waste, fusion power could be a source of energy that has zero emissions and few radioactive byproducts. It is seen by many engineers as the answer to humanity’s energy needs and as such is a technology that represents a multibillion-dollar future industry.

The project’s mission is to demonstrate the scientific and technological feasibility of fusion energy for commercial electricity production. To do this ITER will demonstrate essential fusion energy technologies in a system integrating the appropriate physics and technology, and test key elements required to use fusion.

The ITER reactor, it is hoped, will be the first fusion device to produce thermal energy at the level of an electricity-producing power station. The ITER machine is an experimental fusion reactor based on the Tokamak concept – a toroidal (doughnut-shaped) design that controls the burning plasma of fusing atoms in a magnetic field. This is essentially the same design as the reactor at the Joint European Torus (JET) centre in Oxfordshire. The Tokamak concept was, however, first developed in Russia.

The overall ITER plant comprises the Tokamak, its auxiliaries and supporting plant facilities.

To meet its objectives ITER will be twice the size of the largest existing Tokamak, which is at the JET centre. The ITER reactor is expected to have a fusion performance many times greater than that of JET.

Sites under consideration

Clarington, Canada

Clarington is on the shore of Lake Ontario less than 50km east of Toronto and adjacent to an operating nuclear generating station. The site is currently licensed for nuclear use and has a 500kV node to supply power from the electrical transmission grid. For transporting large components there is also a dock for ships. This would be connected to the site by a road that has yet to be built.

Rokkasho, Japan

Rokkasho is in the northern part of Honshu Island and 45 minutes’ drive north of Misawa city. The site is next to the newly built Nuclear Fuel Cycle Facility. The seismic characteristics of the site are still under evaluation, and the use of seismic isolation rubber bearings for the Tokamak building may be required. The site is 30km from a 500kV sub-station.

Cadarache, France

Situated 35km north of Aix-en-Provence and the French Riviera, this site would have no difficulty in attracting personnel. It is also adjacent to a major nuclear research facility. A 100km road is yet to be built for the site but that will connect it to a roll-on, roll-off ferry dock.

Vandellos, Spain

Located 46km south of Tarragona and 150km from Barcelona, it is adjacent to two existing nuclear power plants, one of which is being dismantled. There is a neighbouring 400kV sub-station 2km from the site, which is a node of the Spanish electricity grid. There is a roll-on, roll-off ferry dock nearby, linked by a private road. Labour and materials cost less in Spain than they do in France, making the build price far cheaper.

What is fusion?

Fusion is the energy source that makes the sun shine. It involves the fusing of atoms under intense pressure and a temperature in excess of 100 million°C. In this process the nuclei of light elements, like hydrogen, fuse to make heavier elements and give off tremendous energy.

In the sun massive gravitational forces generate the temperatures and pressures to force nuclei together. On Earth these conditions are much harder to achieve, and alternative methods have to be used.

There are currently two main approaches. In the inertial method a large number of fuel pellets, usually made of a mixture of deuterium and tritium (see diagram, page 25), are fired into a chamber until they reach a high density. High-energy laser beams bombard the pellets, producing sufficient compression and heat to cause fusion. The plasma, or superheated gas, in which fusion occurs is confined only by its own inertia.

The second method uses a magnetic field to confine the plasma, which is created when fuel pellets are bombarded with microwaves or particle beams.

Magnetic confinement, to be used for ITER, is at a more mature stage of development. It is also preferable because, by holding the plasma in place, fusion conditions are maintained for longer so less energy is required. Unlike fission reactors, which can explode when a critical failure occurs and the nuclear reaction is out of control, fusion will simply shut down if anything goes wrong.

ITER will use the ‘doughnut-shaped’ Torus or Tokamak design, which looks rather like the ‘shape’ of the magnetic field that is visible when iron fillings are placed around a magnet. This is the reactor design developed at Europe’s JET project in Oxfordshire. However, ITER will be twice its size. Researchers hope it will produce 500MW of energy for 500 seconds or longer. It would use tritium and deuterium pellets, both in plentiful supply. About 1kg of this fuel is expected to produce energy equivalent to 10,000 tonnes of fossil fuel. The researchers hope the reactor will generate 10 times as much energy as is required to initiate and sustain the process.