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The saga of Iter

Fusion funding will get messier yet

This autumn, the European Parliament and the European Commission will resume their sparring over how best to find the additional funding the EU has pledged to the construction of the Iter fusion experiment at Cadarache in France (see Brussels Insider).

Though Iter was conceived as an international collaboration in 1985, its construction has only just begun, and the saga has a long way to go yet. The estimated costs of the project have grown from €5 billion to €15bn and continue to rise. Although Russia, India, China, the US and others are partners in the project, Europe, as host, is paying more than half of its cost. In general, EU member state governments would prefer the extra billions for Iter to be taken from the rest of the EU research budget, primarily from the Framework Programme. The Parliament thinks the money could be diverted from agricultural programmes—especially where high food prices have left surpluses. The Commission’s compromise is to take a bit of money from everything, including research and agriculture.

Rumbling behind the disagreement is a pincer movement of scepticism, from right and left, about Iter’s merits. Conservatives are concerned that what started out as a large but manageable experiment in plasma physics has developed into an unwieldy international monster, with costs spiralling out of control and no sign of accountability. Greens and other critics on the left are sceptical of the promise of fusion in general and aghast at how Euratom—Iter’s funding organisation—continues to spend far more money than the EU is able to devote to research into either renewable energy or energy conservation.

Both sets of sceptics have much to be sceptical about. Iter’s mushrooming costs reflect the usual flaws of international collaboration: inefficient carve-up of the necessary engineering work; lack of flexibility; and endless complexity and lack of transparency in project management. And the project doesn’t really help us with global warming, as billed. Despite persistent claims by people who ought to know better, Iter won’t demonstrate fusion power, when it starts working in 2020 or thereabouts. It will merely contain plasma, and study its behaviour. That leaves some equally large problems—such how the reactor chamber can survive or be replenished in the face of an unfeasibly intense barrage of neutrons—until another day. It’s not even as though Iter has a fusion-research monopoly, though success elsewhere seems equally thin on the ground.

The project has been running out of control and someone—Europe’s researchers, or its farmers, or the rest of us—is going to have to pay for it. Many Research Europe readers would instinctively respond that the farmers have been pampered for too long, and have to pay. While that may be the case, no-one could accuse them of culpability; it wasn’t they who foisted Iter on an unsuspecting public. The same can’t be said of the researchers, some of whom, at least, might have forewarned our political leaders of the project’s potential costs and limitations. In reality, of course, neither researchers nor farmers will bear the cost alone. We all will. The least we deserve at the end of the budget process is an honest and detailed statement of the additional costs and how they will be paid.