Interest in reactor cools as construction costs soar

Thursday, February 4, 2010

The European Union is heading for a clash with other major economies over the timetable for building an experimental fusion reactor.

European governments want to slow down construction of the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) because they are paying for the bulk of the construction costs and are concerned that the budget is spiralling out of control. Other countries involved in the ITER project are, however, strongly opposed to any kind of delay.

The countries participating in the ITER project will hold a special high-level meeting on 23-24 February to try to resolve the dispute.

The EU is covering 45% of the costs of building and running ITER, which it is hoped will lead to breakthroughs in nuclear fusion technology – in theory, an almost limitless source of safe and clean energy. The reactor is to be built in Cadarache, France.

The other six partners (the US, China, Russia, India, Japan and South Korea) are each paying 9%.
Delayed deadline

Concerned about the mounting costs, the EU rejected a construction timetable proposed by ITER's administration at a meeting of participating countries on 18-19 November. The administration had proposed that ITER, which was launched in November 2006, should conduct its first experiments in 2018. But the EU's member states agreed in a position paper in November that a 2018 deadline was “not feasible”. They reaffirmed this at a working group of the Council of Ministers on Monday (1 February). Officials said that the EU would prefer to make construction costs less painful by spreading them over a longer period of time.

A 2018 deadline, however, is strongly backed by all non-EU countries involved in ITER, with the exception of the US, which has shown signs of flexibility.

On 23-24 February in Paris, the ITER heads of delegation from the participating governments – in practice, government science officers and the European Commission – will try to resolve their differences.

Neil Calder, ITER's head of communication, said that a meeting of the ITER Council (the project's formal decision-making body) might be organised in March or April if agreement is not reached this month. The next scheduled meeting of the ITER Council is in June. Decisions on ITER have to be taken by unanimity among the participating countries.

The EU agreed to shoulder a large share of the projet's up-front costs, including all construction work at Cadarache, in exchange for having the project based in its territory.

But ITER's projected costs have soared since the first estimates were made in 2001. Contributions will generally be made in kind (through provisions of construction materials, reactor components, labour and expertise). The EU's total in-kind contribution was estimated at €1.491 billion in 2001. By 2008, when the EU's Fusion for Energy agency, which was set up to manage the EU contribution to ITER, reviewed the costs, the estimate had risen to €3.5bn.
Rising costs

Concerns about the ballooning budget led the Commission last year to set up an expert group tasked with reviewing the construction costs. The group's report, released to member states last month and seen by European Voice, said that the construction costs alone could rise as high as €1.5bn (compared to a 2001 estimate of €598 million).

The report said that the increase was a result of “omissions or underestimates” in the original estimates, inflation in concrete and steel prices and “changes in specifications”.

The Commission has set up a task-force to identify sources of additional funding for ITER. One option being considered is a loan from the European Investment Bank.

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