EU and Japan spar for ITER
Reviewed by Hitoshi URABE
"EU and Japan spar for ITER"
The article reports the current status on the project of building ITER, a joint attempt by six parties consisting of Japan, EU, US, Russia, China, and South Korea. There have been fierce discussions for the past year or so over the building site of the facility, as to whether it should be placed in Japan or France.
ITER is a research facility to seek possibilities for nuclear fusion power plant. While the current nuclear plants use the heat generated by fission - breaking up - of uranium or plutonium atoms, the envisioned plant will use fusion - merging - of hydrogen atoms. In fact, this is the basic mechanism that keeps the sun go on shining. The attempt is to ultimately recreate it here on earth, in a controllable form. If such a plant is realized, it means the human beings will have acquired virtually infinite source of energy, as hydrogen is so abundant everywhere, vis-à-vis in the case of uranium, or crude oil.
Other advantages of fusion plant are significant, too. In theory, the by-product of such a plant will only be helium, a light and non-toxic rare gas currently used in filling balloons and lifting airships. In reality, it seems unavoidable for it to emit very little of other substances, but the environmental load will be minimal. It is also considered safer than the current nuclear fission plant, as there is no risk of overruns and meltdowns, like the incidents at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, and possibilities for things a lot worse.
Because of these advantages, researches began several decades ago in a number of countries. But as it had obvious military implications, especially in the days of cold war, they were considered top secrets of the respective states. But they soon found out that because of high technological hurdles to overcome and enormous volume of capital investment required to proceed with the research, assisted by the ease of global political tension, it would be necessary, and wise, to bring the interested parties together in pursuing the project They have since decided to build an experimental plant, named ITER, acronym for "International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor", which also means "the way" in Latin.
It is planned to take 10 years to build, then 20 years of experiments is to follow, finally to be dismantled. The cost is estimated at 10 billion US dollars to build and operate, excluding the cost of dismantling which is to be borne be the host country of the facility.
The political implications, from military and environment to social and health, and, of course effects on local economy will be tremendous, and as each of the factors is difficult to be assessed, it is almost impossible to evaluate the effects of the project in political terms. In fact, so complicated an issue it is that countries except for France and Japan have shied away from soliciting the plant to be built within their boundaries.
Even if ITER, with all the experiments planned goes well, the beginning of power generation by a fusion plant for actual use is estimated to be sometime after 2050.
It is thus a venture which could be advanced only by envisioning the fate of human being in terms of centuries to come. The people involved in the project now must discuss the matter thoroughly, and not let it fall into a pit of shortsighted political quagmire.