ITER Still Seeking Approval—and Money

The governing council of the ITER fusion reactor project has again passed up the chance to give final approval to the €16 billion project's baseline, the detailed document describing the reactor's design, schedule, and cost. But delegates at the council meeting in Suzhou, China, on 16 to 17 June did set a date for the baseline's final approval: the last week in July, by which time the European Union (E.U.), which is shouldering 45% of the project's cost, is expected to have sorted out its financial difficulties.

ITER is a worldwide effort to show that nuclear fusion—the melding together of hydrogen atoms to produce helium and release energy—can be harnessed as a source of power. The project, which is supported by China, the E.U., India, Japan, South Korea, Russia, and the United States, is ready to start building a giant reactor in Cadarache, France. But alarm over its rising cost has caused concern among the partners. The E.U. in particular, with its large cost share as the project's host, has repeatedly delayed approval of the baseline as it investigated ways to cut costs. Last month, the E.U. revealed that its fusion budget was short by €1.4 billion for the year 2012-13 and called on E.U. member states to provide the extra money. At the end of last month, ministers from E.U. states declined to do that but decided to set up a task force to investigate a way out of the funding crisis. That body is due to report next month, which meant there was little new information in time for this week's ITER Council meeting in China. But the E.U. is obviously confident that the task force will find a way to fulfill Europe's funding commitments, as the E.U. has agreed to an extra ITER Council meeting next month in Cadarache. As delegates gather there, they will most likely see a hive of activity on the reactor site, which has been quiet for the past year, because construction is scheduled to begin during July.