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ITER Finds a Home--With a Whopping Mortgage

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Science  01 Jul 2005:
Vol. 309, Issue 5731, pp. 28-29
DOI: 10.1126/science.309.5731.28a

After a year and a half of tense diplomacy and secret discussions, an international fusion research collaboration has finally chosen a site for the world's most expensive science experiment. Meeting in Moscow this week, ministers from China, the European Union (E.U.), Japan, Russia, South Korea, and the United States announced that Cadarache, in southern France, has been chosen as the location of the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER).

“I'm extremely pleased,” says Jean Jacquinot, former head of the Cadarache, fusion lab and now science adviser to France's high commissioner for atomic energy, “not because it is Cadarache, but because the whole community can now get together and build something.”

Japan, after standing firm against foreign opposition, in the end may have surrendered to internal pressure to give up its desire to be ITER's host. Observers speculate that the Ministry of Finance, seeking to rein in Japan's deficit spending, may have balked at the price tag, about $2.5 billion for the host country. In return for the withdrawal of the Japanese site, companies in Japan will get substantial E.U. procurement contracts, and European money will help build a major research center in Japan. The choice of Cadarache “is disappointing,” says plasma physicist Kenro Miyamoto, a professor emeritus at the University of Tokyo, “but it's preferable to having the project fall apart.”

ITER aims to recreate the sun's power on Earth. Using intense magnetic fields to hold hydrogen isotopes at enormous temperature and pressure, it would produce a flood of energy as the isotopes fuse to form larger nuclei. Originally proposed at a U.S.-Soviet summit in 1985, the ITER design was essentially complete in 2001, but when the six partners gathered in Washington, D.C., in December 2003 to pick between two candidate sites, South Korea and the United States supported Rokkasho in northern Japan, whereas Russia and China backed the E.U.'s candidate at Cadarache (Science, 2 January 2004, p. 22).

Joining forces.

The E.U.'s Janez Potocnik (left) helps Japan's Nariaki Nakayama sign on the dotted line in Moscow.


Further technical studies failed to resolve the impasse. Some Europeans accused U.S. officials of favoring Japan because, unlike France, it had supported the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. The logjam began to move in April this year when E.U. research commissioner Janez Potocnik visited Tokyo; negotiations continued during a visit by Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi to Luxembourg in May. The two rivals for host agreed on a deal guaranteeing certain concessions to the loser (Science, 13 May, p. 934). All that remained was for one side to back down. This week, Japan graciously removed Rokkasho from the running.

As expected, the E.U. will pay for 50% of ITER's $5 billion construction price tag. The other five partners will contribute 10% each as payments in kind. As a consolation to Japan, the E.U. will place some of its industrial contracts with Japanese companies so that Japan will end up building 20% of the reactor. Japanese researchers will make up 20% of the staff of the ITER organization, and the E.U. agreed to support a Japanese candidate for director general. Some headquarters functions will also be sited in Japan, and the E.U. promised to back Japan as a host for any subsequent commercial prototype reactor.

Japan will also get to host an extra research center to speed work toward commercial fusion reactors. Japan can choose from a list, drawn up by the six partners, that features a high-energy neutron source for materials testing, a fusion technology center, a computer simulation lab, and an upgrade of Japan's existing JT-60 fusion reactor. To pay for the center, the E.U. and Japan will contribute up to $800 million more than the normal ITER budget. “Japan will serve as what you could call a quasi-host country for the ITER project,” Japan's science minister, Nariaki Nakayama, told a press conference today. “Through the [extra facility], we will become a base for international research and development in fusion energy equal in importance to the E.U.”

Other partners, particularly South Korea and China, are less enamored with the deal. Luo Delong, an official with China's Ministry of Science and Technology, says that “more discussion is needed on the issues of the ITER director and the additional research facility.”

European fusion researchers are delighted with the result. “Everyone is very happy,” says Alex Bradshaw, scientific director of the Max Planck Institute for Plasma Physics in Garching/Greifswald, Germany, and chair of Germany's fusion research program. But some researchers are wondering whether, considering the final deal, it wouldn't have been better to be the loser—especially because France seems to be getting the whole pie, with slim pickings for other E.U. countries. There are also worries that little will be left for fusion research supporting ITER if the European research budget shrinks (Science, 24 June, p. 1848). “It is essential to keep other activities going, or no one from Europe will be around to use ITER” in 10 years' time, says Bradshaw.

For now, however, there's a palpable sense of relief after 18 months of wrangling. “I will certainly be quite happy to share a glass with my European colleagues,” says France's Jacquinot.

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