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France picked as site of experimental reactor

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

PARIS -- France beat out Japan on Tuesday in the race to host a $13 billion experimental nuclear fusion reactor that scientists hope will produce a clean, safe and endless energy resource and help phase out polluting fossil fuels.

The United States, the European Union, China, Russia, Japan and South Korea chose Cadarache, in the southern region of Provence, during talks in Moscow. Japan reportedly backed down after agreeing to a bigger role in research and operations.

The project is expected to create 10,000 jobs and take about eight years to build.

But fulfilling the long-term vision of the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, as it is called, could take decades.

The six-partner consortium is promoting the future of fusion, which reproduces the sun's power source and creates no greenhouse gas emissions and only low levels of radioactive waste.

If all goes well with the experimental reactor, officials hope to set up a demonstration power plant in Cadarache around 2040. Officials project that 10 percent to 20 percent of the world's energy could come from fusion by the century's end, said Raymond L. Orbach, the U.S. Department of Energy's office of science director.

But France's Greens and environmentalists in France, who generally oppose nuclear power, argued the project would turn the focus away from concrete efforts to fight global warming now.

Noel Mamere, Greens party lawmaker, said on Grance-Info radio that it wasn't good for the fight against the greenhouse effect because billions of dollars are going into a 30-50 year project that may or may not be effective.

The rest of France's political class was united in praise, with President Jacques Chirac calling it "a great success for France, for Europe and for all of the partners" in the project.

The consortium had been divided over where to put the test reactor, and competition was intense. At stake are billions of dollars in research funding, construction and engineering contracts.

Russia, China and the European Union wanted to locate the plant at Cadarache, in southern France. The EU argued that Cadarache, one of the biggest civil nuclear research centers in Europe, has existing technical support facilities and expertise, thus reducing the risks.

Japan, the United States and South Korea wanted the facility built at Rokkasho in northern Japan.

The United States -- which is funding 10 percent of construction and considers fusion an important part of its long-term energy plans -- had backed Japan's site because it was closer to a port, said Orbach.

With the site resolved, participants will now negotiate the construction details and sign a final agreement, hopefully by year's end.

While fossil fuels are expected to run short in about 50 years, the reactor would run on an isotope of hydrogen, a virtually boundless source of fuel that can be extracted from water.

"We made it clear from the very beginning that our technical preference was for the Japanese site, but that we would support what was finally (agreed) upon," he said.

State Department spokesman Tom Casey said the United States was pleased the sides had agreed on a site. "Now the six partners will work together to resolve the other various technical and legal questions that exist so we can move forward on this critically important energy experiment," he said.

With the site resolved, participants will now negotiate the construction details and sign a final agreement, hopefully by year's end.

Fusion, which powers the sun and stars, involves colliding atoms at extremely high temperatures and pressure inside a reactor. When the atoms fuse into a plasma they release energy that can be harnessed to generate electricity.

While fossil fuels are expected to run short in about 50 years, the reactor would run on an isotope of hydrogen, a virtually boundless source of fuel that can be extracted from water.

"We are all dealing with the question of how to address a sustainable and also environmentally friendly energy source for the future, and fusion is extremely promising," EU Research Commissioner Janez Potocnik said.

Japanese newspaper reports said Tokyo was prepared to give up hosting the project in return for a bigger research and operations role. The deal concluded Tuesday assured Tokyo of that.

The EU and Japan have reached an agreement on a broader cooperation in developing fusion energy to make it a commercially viable source of energy.

The EU also will support a Japanese candidate for the post of the ITER director general and back the construction later of a demonstration reactor in Japan.

"Japan is happy and sad at the same time," said Nariaki Nakayama, Japan's minister for education, science and technology. "We decided to overcome the sorrow and turn the sorrow into joy. Japan in the future will be ready to make a contribution to the development of fusion energy."


Associated Press writer Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow contributed to this report.


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