MOSCOW - In a bid to harness what backers say could be a nearly limitless source of clean electric power, an international group chose France yesterday as the site for an experimental fusion reactor to replicate how the sun creates energy.
The $13 billion project is one of the most prestigious and expensive international scientific efforts ever launched. But critics say the technological hurdles to be overcome are so vast that the money could be better spent in other ways.
Japan and France, backed by roughly equal factions in the consortium planning the project, had competed fiercely for the prestige and economic benefits of being the site of the project. But Tokyo agreed to a compromise: The fusion reactor is to be at Cadarache, near Marseille in southern France, while Japan will have the next-largest role in the project. Cadarache has one of the biggest civilian nuclear research centers in Europe.
"We are making scientific history," Janez Potocnik, the European Union's science and research commissioner, said at a news conference in Moscow to announce the agreement for the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor project.
Fusion is the process of atoms combining at extraordinarily high temperatures that not only provides the energy of the sun and stars but also gives hydrogen bombs their power. The challenge faced by this international project is to control that energy in a self-sustaining reaction in which the heat released by fusion can be used to generate electricity, an engineering feat of daunting complexity.
But the theoretical attractions of the idea are also great.
The reactor's main fuel, deuterium, also known as heavy hydrogen, can be obtained from water. The project's Web site states that Lake Geneva alone contains enough deuterium to meet global energy needs for several thousand years.
Existing nuclear reactors use fission, the splitting of atoms, to produce power. That process leaves waste that remains highly radioactive for hundreds of thousands of years. Fusion reactors, by contrast, would produce minimal waste that would be radioactive for a much shorter period, backers say.
A declaration, signed yesterday at a meeting in Moscow of representatives of the United States, the 25-member EU, Russia, China, Japan and South Korea, said the project would explore "the long-term potential of fusion energy as a virtually limitless, environmentally acceptable and economically competitive source of energy."
The project is important for "the rapid realization of fusion energy for peaceful purposes and the stimulation of the interest of succeeding generations in fusion," it said.
ITER was conceived at an international summit in 1985 as a showpiece for cooperation during the Cold War. Construction of the reactor is expected to take 10 years. The reactor is budgeted to cost about $6 billion and will produce about 10,000 jobs. The rest of the $13 billion is for associated research, a significant portion of it in Japan.
If the ITER project is successful, long-term plans call for a demonstration fusion power plant to be built in the 2030s and the first commercial fusion plant to be built in midcentury.
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.