£1bn funding shortfall jeopardises hopes of producing cheap, non-polluting power

Monday, June 7, 2010

A £15bn international bid to harness the fusion process that powers the Sun is facing a major funding crisis. Scientists have revealed that the cost of the International Thermonuclear Experiment Reactor (Iter) has trebled from its original £5bn price tag in the past three years. At the same time, financial crises have beset all the nations involved in the project.

As a result, construction of Iter – at Cadarache in France – has already been pushed back from 2015 to 2019, and further delays are likely. Some scientists say there is a risk that the entire project could be cancelled.

Because it is hoped that fusion plants could one day supply the world with cheap, non-polluting power, the crisis facing Iter represents a substantial threat to plans to tackle the planet's energy and climate problems.

Much of Iter's difficulties stem from Europe, with the EU – which is struggling to prevent financial crisis spreading through its member states – having been warned last month that it will have to find an extra £1bn to plug a shortfall in construction funds by the end of next year.

An EU memo has called on the 27 member states to "provide the additional resources necessary" for the project, just as these nations are desperately trying to cut their own domestic budgets. "I think the momentum of the project may be in very deep trouble," one Iter scientist told the journal Nature last week. "Time is pressing."

Harnessing the process of nuclear fusion has been a scientific dream since the second world war. Unlike nuclear fission, which powers traditional nuclear reactors and which involves the splitting of uranium atoms, fusion involves combining atoms of hydrogen to create helium, a process that releases vast amounts of energy.

However, fusion occurs only at very high temperatures, and massive amounts of electricity are needed first to heat hydrogen isotopes – deuterium and tritium – to 100,000,000C so that fusion can take place. In addition, a powerful electromagnetic field has be generated to contain the superhot plasma that is created inside a fusion plant.

To date, all prototype fusion plants have consumed more energy than they have generated. Iter is intended to be the first that will actually make excess power and is intended to help scientists design a future generation of plants, each capable of generating as much electricity as a large nuclear reactor, but without producing large amounts of radioactive waste. Iter's chief executive officer, Kaname Ikeda, says: "It's an exciting project, the fruit of more than 50 years of research."

The Iter project is backed by most major industrial powers, including the US, Europe, Russia, China, South Korea and Japan. When plans were drawn up for its construction, two prospective sites were chosen, one at Cadarache and one at Rokkasho in Japan. To ensure that the project was built in Europe, the EU pledged to pay the largest slice of its construction – 45% – with the rest being shared among the five others. That move has now come back to haunt Europe.

"We need to build all the major buildings that will house the project and that money is needed now," said a spokesman for Iter. "The problem is that, when we looked at the detailed design of the project, it was found that costs had been badly underestimated. Now we are having to ask European Union member states to find that extra money at a time when they are having to cope with their own domestic financial problems. Yes, this is crisis, but I am sure that the project will still go ahead in the long run."

Posted in |