It was supposed to be a great day for nuclear fusion research: After 18 years of study, experiment, and debate, politicians gathered in Washington, D.C., to give the green light to a $5 billion reactor that would show fusion's potential to generate almost limitless power. But on 20 December there was deadlock: Half of the partners behind the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) wanted it to be sited in Japan, the remainder wanted it in France. So the signing ceremony is on hold and everyone has gone home for another month of deliberation.
Researchers are convinced that with enough heat and pressure, they can get deuterium and tritium to fuse into helium in a chain reaction that will produce vast amounts of energy. But new technologies are needed to achieve the necessary hundreds of millions of degrees centigrade inside a doughnut-shaped vessel known as a tokamak. Even if ITER does get the go-ahead in 2004, it is not expected to fire up until 2014 and its whole 30-year lifetime will cost $10 billion, making it the world's most expensive research project after the international space station.
Officials behind the scenes had been negotiating for years, whittling down the list of potential sites, divvying up the cost of building and operating the reactor, and working out ways to manage an international project involving thousands of researchers. In the end it came down to this: Russia and China supported the European Union's candidate site in southern France while the United States and Korea favored one in northern Japan. Press reports have suggested that the United States supported Japan because it did not want to award such a prize to France following its opposition to the war in Iraq. U.S. officials strenuously deny the claims.
Russia attempted to break the deadlock by suggesting that the project take a broader approach to fusion research than just building ITER and also include a facility for testing the radiation hardness of materials as well as a computer center to carry out simulations. In this approach, the candidate site that did not play host to the tokamak would be home to the other facilities and possibly even a remote control center for the reactor.
The politicians are scheduled to meet again in February, and--hopefully--finally find a home for ITER. If the indecision goes on much longer, "it would harm the project," says Jean Jacquinot, head of France's fusion research program at Cadarache.