6th Dec 2023

EU ups the pressure to host world's first nuclear fusion reactor

Time is running short for a decision on where to build the world's first nuclear fusion reactor.

Following a meeting in Brussels on Monday, EU ministers signalled that they want a decision on where to build the world's first nuclear fusion reactor before the end of Luxembourg’s EU presidency in June.

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The ITER Project (International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor), is set to begin in 2005, but consensus among the six parties involved (EU, USA, Japan, Russia, China, South Korea) over the location of the site is yet to be reached.

Tokyo last week rejected an EU request for talks on a compromise.

European Commissioner for Science and Research Janez Potocnik is however still ready to meet his Japanese counterpart "to explore ways to achieve a compromise".

Speaking yesterday at the Competitiveness Council of ministers in Brussels, Mr Potocnik signalled a possible solution to the problem, which would include the creation of "a special role for Japan" in the project.

The EU, China and Russia are pressing for the venture to be built in Cadarache, France, while Japan, the US and South Korea want it to be built in Rokkasho-mura, Japan. Both sites already host major nuclear facilities.

"While I intend to pursue a six-party agreement until the last possible moment, I am at the same time determined that the solution including the highest possible number of parties should be found soon", said Mr Potocnik.

The EU has signalled before that it is prepared to go it alone without Japan if no agreement is achieved in time.

A spokesman from the Japanese Mission to the EU said that would be "regrettable". "Japan and the EU are concerting [their positions]", he added.

"To be honest, that would be regrettable too", noted the Commission spokesperson for Science and Research when confronted with the remark. "We can't negotiate forever", she added, pointing out that the construction of the ITER site should start in 2005.

Although both French and Japanese prime ministers have personally endorsed their country's bid to host the project, so far the talks have only been on a technical level.

Last Friday (4 March), Mr Potocnik offered to end the technical discussions and find a compromise "at a high political level", which Japan refused.

Prohibitive costs

The ITER project would represent a combined investment of 10 billion euro over a period of 30 years, making it the most expensive international scientific venture ever to be made since the international space station.

Building two reactors instead of one, as was once proposed by Russia in 2003, would have prohibitive costs.

The EU intends to foot 40% of the bill, and France has already proposed to double its own contribution to 20% of the costs.

Tokyo believes its offer is technically superior to Cadarache, yet the EU criticised the location by being more prone to earthquakes and with less favourable weather conditions. Both parties claim their favoured locations fulfil all ITER requirements.

"I continue to believe the best solution is to build ITER with the six international parties, not at least as a model for future joint endeavours", said the Commissioner.

Building a Sun on Earth

Unlike common nuclear fission reactors, a nuclear fusion reactor has never been made in a commercially viable way.

The technique is distinct: instead of smashing atoms apart, it binds them together, releasing far more energy. One of the conditions of that to happen is for the plasma to be confined under a temperature equal to that of the Sun for a long period of time.

The goal of the ITER project is to create a long term solution to the world's energy problems, low on pollution emissions and using only seawater as fuel.

EU could go it alone on nuclear fusion plant

The EU will go ahead with locating the International Themonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) in France if no agreement can be reached with Japan by the end of the year over where to build the plant, according to EU research ministers.

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The EU and Japan will speed up discussions over the world’s first nuclear fusion reactor so that a July deadline can be met, the European Research Commissioner Janez Potocnik and the Japanese Minister of Science and Technology Nariaki Nakayama have agreed.


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