The European Union and six other states agreed on an updated plan to finance and establish a timetable for the ITER project, an experimental fusion reactor which could lead towards the development of unlimited and clean fusion energy.
The parties hammered out a deal at the future site of the project in Cadarache, France at Wednesday.
The fusion reaction, which is the same process that powers stars, has already been achieved in smaller experimental reactors and in weapons. The difficulty is developing larger fusion reactors and to achieve a constant fusion process which would generate more energy than what is put in.
This International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (or ITER) project was created in order to combine the scientific and industrial capacities of the most advanced countries in the world to solve mankind's energy problems.
Together with the International Space Station and CERN, ITER is the most extensive and complex international project ever undertaken. The seven members -- China, India, South Korea, Japan, Russia, the United States and the European Union -- are committed to contribute to the historic endeavor in the form of financing, the construction of components and by sending scientists.
ITER's governing council met for two days in Cadarache and discussed ways to finance an estimated budget of 16 billion euros, the latest number as reported by the news agency AFP. A deal was reached on Wednesday when the EU, which holds the largest share of the project with 45 percent, pledged additional financing of a maximum 6.6 billion euros.
The seven members also decided upon Japanese physicist Osamu Motojima as the organization´s new director-general, replacing Kaname Ikeda. The ITER council gave a green light to start construction on the experimental reactor this summer. The date for achieving the first plasma containment -- a key step in generating energy -- was set to November 2019, one year later than previously planned.
After several delays and many lengthy political discussion, the hugely complex ITER project seems to be on a steadier course. Critics had prophesied the failure of the project, but construction is now underway, extended funding is secured and the first hardware component was successfully manufactured a few weeks ago.
Japan finished the first strands of superconducting cable needed to make the 18 coils making up the Toroidal Field magnet system at the heart of the ITER "tokomak" -- a doughnut-shaped chamber, in which very strong magnetic fields generated by superconducting coils hold together the nuclei of light atomic elements in a super-heated plasma. This creates similar physical conditions to the inside of the sun and allows the fusion of atomic nuclei of hydrogen to heavier elements, in this case helium, thereby releasing large amounts of energy.
While there is no guarantee that it will be possible to build commercially viable fusion power plants, there is also no fundamental technical obstacle. The result would be an unlimited, safe and completely clean energy source. The fuel is hydrogen, which exists equally distributed all over the planet and in essentially unlimited supply.
The director of research in nuclear energy at the European Commission, Octavio Quintana Trias, explained why the fusion experiment was still a great deal despite of the risen costs: "If you consider the total costs of the machine, even in the worst scenario, equals the bill we pay for energy for just one day in the world, and we get a new energy source for this price I think its worth trying."
To contact the editor, e-mail: