Four years ago, the EU, Russia, China, India, Japan, Korea and the US picked Cadarache in the south of France as the location for the experimental nuclear fusion reactor, Iter. But since the science of how to achieve this type of fusion hasn't been settled (to put it mildly), the plans for the Iter project have been the subject of several revisions in recent years, each one leading to an increased price tag. Even opponents from within the scientific world are becoming more vocal to end the project.
Delegates at an extraordinary meeting of the Iter Council on July 28 also agreed a timeline that would see the first plasma experiments in 2019, with a fusion reactor generating significantly more power than it consumed (for a few minutes) by March 2027. But the Iter organisation was encouraged to explore ways to bring this deuterium-tritium operation forward to 2026. After research and development at Iter it should be possible to build a demonstration fusion power plant around 2030.
Coupled with the increases in costs for raw materials like steel and cement, the budget for the project has spiralled from around 5 billion euros to about 16 billion euros.
Delegates agreed that the overall costs of the project will be almost US$21 billion (16 billion euros), some three times the original price. Europe is paying 45% of the construction costs, while the other participants (China, India, Japan, South Korea, Russia and the USA) are paying 9% each.
Additional construction funds will have to come from within the EU's budget. The extra 1.4 billion euros will cover a shortfall in building costs in 2012-13. The EU has agreed to meet a critical short term shortfall of those 1.4 billion euros by using money that has been allocated to other research programmes. But the EU has said it will cap its overall contribution to Iter at 6.6 billion euros, leaving the fusion project to find cuts in costs of around 600 million euros.
In Europe, some scientists are unhappy with the EU proposal to take funds from unspent budgets to bail Iter out. In France, a group of physicists - including Nobel prize winner Georges Charpak - have written a letter to the press calling Iter a catastrophe and arguing that it should be shut down. They suggest that making up the shortfall in Iter's budget is costing France alone the equivalent of 20 years investment in physics and biology. According to one of the signatories, Professor Jacques Treiner from Paris University, it was time to call a halt to Iter before any more money was spent. "At a certain point especially when they say they will take money from other fields to fund this one you have to say, really a clear answer and the answer is no, don't do that."
More on the technical problems of nuclear fusion: Fusion Illusions, Nuclear Monitor 698, 27 November 2009
Sources: BBC, 28 July 2010 / World Nuclear News, 29 July 2010