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Nuclear fusion is the energy source that powers the sun and stars. Confined and heated under massive gravitational forces, light atoms fuse together releasing large amounts of energy. Ever since the fifties, scientists have been attempting to tame this reaction. If it could be reproduced on Earth, and on the scale required for commercial power generation, it would solve our energy problems - and without contributing to the greenhouse effect. In November 1991, for the first time ever in the laboratory, fusion power in the megawatt range was produced in the European Union's JET (Joint European Torus) for two seconds. Encouraged by this, the European Commission has joined forces with Russia, the United States and Japan and is planning for the Next Step, ITER (International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor). An evaluation carried out recently, summarised in the "Fusion Programme evaluation 1996", strongly urges that the realisation of ITER be the first priority of the Community Fusion Programme under the Fifth Framework Programme. In order to maintain Europe's leading position in fusion research, the report goes on, ITER should be built in Europe.
The 1996 Fusion Evaluation Board was set up by the Commission to perform an external, independent assessment into the progress of Community activities carried out within the Fusion Programme during the last five years. The Evaluation Board also reflected on the future of nuclear fusion and considered the scientific, technical, financial, environmental and socio-economic aspects, including a comparison with other types of energy generation. In the resulting report, the Fusion Evaluation Board states that "taking into account intrinsic safety aspects, potential environmental advantages and the wide availability of fuel, it is important for Europe to have this option open".
In fusion, it all boils down to making energy out of water. Deuterium and tritium, two isotopes of hydrogen, fuse and produce helium and neutrons while releasing an enormous amount of energy. Tritium is not abundant in nature but is produced from lithium in a "blanket" surrounding the burning fuel. Deuterium comes from water (about 30 g per cubic metre) and there is enough for millions of years. Lithium is a light metal found in the Earth's crust and in the oceans; there is enough for millennia. The cost of developing this universal process into an exploitable energy source is such that no single nation could afford it alone. Therefore, and because the benefits for achieving fusion energy would be global, the European Union is paving the way for international cooperation in fusion.
At present, Europe is at the cutting edge of fusion research. Not only was JET the first fusion device to achieve significant power output, but other experiments have allowed the investigation of all the relevant parameters and enabled the designing of an experimental fusion reactor with confidence. In fact, over the years 1983 to 1991, the JET team has moved the state-of-the-art from being 100 times away from the simultaneous production of the necessary conditions for fusion, to being only 6 times short of it. Substantial progress has been achieved not only in fusion science but also in fusion technology and engineering. The next step of the development, ITER, is in the design phase. Building on the achievements of successive generations of scientists, Europe, Japan, Russia and the United States have embarked on an international cooperative project for the development of fusion which is without precedent. ITER's mission is to demonstrate the scientific and technological feasibility of fusion. ITER will be the first fusion device to produce thermal power at a level comparable with that of a commercial power station. At present, exploratory talks on the construction of ITER are under way.
To a great extent, European industry has contributed to Europe's leading position in fusion research both in providing hardware for fusion research devices including JET and developing components for ITER. According to the Fusion Evaluation report, in order to maintain Europe's leadership and to further strengthen the competitiveness and competence of European industry and laboratories, it would be highly recommendable to built ITER in Europe. The recent expression of interest in hosting ITER from the Italian Minister Berlinguer, as pointed out by Mrs Cresson at the Research Council on 7 October 1996, confirms the will of Europe to play a significant role in this enterprise.
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PRESS RELEASES | PRESS RELEASES OF 1997 | 08.02.2000