The sovereign can no longer say, "You shall think as I do on pain of death;" but he says, "You are free to think differently from me, and to retain your life, your property, and all that you possess; but if such be your determination, you are henceforth an alien among your people."

(Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 1835)

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

Nuclear fusion: the EU in a bind

There have been rumours in recent days - not particularly surprising rumours - that the EU debt crisis could have a negative impact on the attempt to commercialise nuclear fusion at Cadarache in France. The project, named the International Thermonuclear Experiment Reactor (ITER), includes the EU, United States, China, Russia, Japan and South Korea. In 2005, France narrowly won the right to host the project ahead of Japan, primarily because the EU pledged to pay 45 percent of the site's construction. However, scientists have revealed that the initial £5bn cost of the project has trebled over the last three years. As a result, the timeline has been pushed back from 2015 to 2019 and the project could end up being cancelled entirely. Although this topic is slightly outside the usual scope of this blog, I thought it might be worth discussing given that there would be real benefits for the European Union if the project produces results -- not least for energy security.

So what are the benefits to be gained from commercialising nuclear fusion? I'm no scientist, but here is what I've been told:

1) Unlike nuclear fission reactors, those based on fusion are inherently safe, which means that the major argument against nuclear energy - safety - would be undermined;

2) Fusion does not produce large amounts of radioactive waste for which states need to devise unpopular long-term disposal plans;

3) In comparison to current nuclear reactors, those based on fusion could produce far more energy.

But, of course, there are problems. This process entails recreating the conditions at the centre of the sun where elements are able to fuse together under intense heat. Creating that heat requires vast amounts of electricity and all prototype fusion plants to date have consumed more energy than they have generated. So, the aim of ITER is to create excess power and pave the way for
innovative new reactor designs -- an ambitious and expensive goal that could take decades.

If the current funding crisis in Europe continues then the EU may be unable to continue financing 45 percent of the total cost, perhaps placing the whole project in jeopardy. It's understandable that the project has its critics. After all, this is an extravagance at a time when most EU states are battling against mounting debt burdens.

Clearly the EU finds itself in a very difficult position and this raises important questions about whether ambitious projects that could, potentially, change the nature of energy security should be off limits to budget cuts. Although the possible gains (if successful) are significant, we could be throwing money into a black hole. Of course the EU should be at the center of pioneering projects such as these, but the rationale for pledging to pay 45 percent of the project has to be severely questionned. Safe and affordable nuclear fusion could reduce European dependency on oil imports while taking away the risk of future Chernobyls. But at the same time, did we really need to insist that the experimental reactor be based in Europe? The liability that European tax payers now face suggests that the answer is no.

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