The future of the global effort to build a workable nuclear fusion reactor hangs in the balance after officials failed last week to choose between proposed sites in France and Japan. Some progress was made, however, particularly in divvying up the costs of building and operating the reactor. "A very important step has been taken: The total budget is now secure," says Achilleas Mitsos, director-general of research at the European Commission and head of the European Union (E.U.) delegation.
The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) aims to produce 500 megawatts of power by burning a plasma of deuterium and tritium held in place by superconducting magnets in a doughnut-shaped vessel called a torus. The ITER partners--which now include Canada, China, the E.U., Japan, Russia, South Korea, and the United States--have been working on the project for 18 years, but for several it is imperative to have a decision on site and cost sharing by the end of December.
According to Mitsos, the partners have now agreed that the host will foot 43% to 48% of the total bill of $10 billion for construction and operation. Other members will share the rest. E.U. and Japanese officials are now desperately trying to persuade the other members to support their site before 20 December, when politicians will meet in Washington, D.C., to sign the deal. It's time to bring a large international project to Asia, "to avoid having a monopoly of cooperative projects in the West," says Satoru Ohtake, head of the Office of Fusion Energy at Japan's Ministry of Education.
The management structure of the project has yet to be finalized, but it may depend on the form of compensation for the losing site. "We have discussed schemes so that the E.U. or Japan will play some leading role even in the event they do not host [ITER]," says Ohtake. Whatever the chosen site, researchers are praying for a positive result this time, after the program stalled in 1998 when the U.S. pulled out. "If there is no decision, it could damage the project. The public will think the people involved in ITER will never make any decision," says Ohtake.