Education in fusion

A ‘long-term project for preparing the future’. The expression may be overused, but it still applies perfectly to research in the field of nuclear fusion. Although construction of the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) at Cadarache (FR) has begun, no one is yet suggesting that this source of energy, which in theory is both clean and inexhaustible, will have been mastered on the industrial scale before the end of the century. Investing in the future also means investing in communication and education.

Based on this analysis, the European Fusion Development Association (EFDA) is developing an active educational policy aimed at students and teachers. It has produced brochures, FAQs and multimedia activities. Its website is a precious resource centre of texts, photos, activities and CDs for understanding the issues involved in the harnessing of "solar energy": energy released by the fusion of two light atomic nuclei, rather than that of the fission of a heavy nucleus, which is how today’s nuclear reactors work.

This communication policy is not independent of political considerations. European public opinion is profoundly divided on the matter of the civilian use of nuclear energy. A Eurobarometer survey published last February indicates that only 14% of Europeans are in favour of increasing the share of nuclear energy in the Union’s energy package. One in five respondents, however, would change their minds if they could be assured that nuclear energy does not produce greenhouse gases and would reduce energy dependence. Nuclear fusion would share those two advantages, and have the further advantage of not producing long-term radioactive wastes. Fusion therefore offers very real advantages, which the EFDA intends to make better known. The least one can say, however, is that it has its work cut out for it. While 58% of Europeans had heard of nuclear fusion in 2006, only 9% knew the name ITER.

A master’s of choice

This ignorance of the future flagship of global fusion research is all the more regrettable since the project will be spending some 10 billion euros over a period of thirty years and will employ a thousand scientists at Cadarache alone, all of whom have to be trained. A challenge indeed for Europe’s universities, to which the Erasmus Mundus programme is valiantly responding. Instituted in September 2006, the ‘European Master in nuclear fusion and engineering physics’ offers a multidisciplinary training geared to the requirements of the future ITER site. This diploma, coordinated by the University of Ghent (BE) in association with three universities in Madrid (1), the University of Stuttgart (DE), the Henri Poincaré University of Nancy (FR) and the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm (SE), will offer a two-year programme conducted in three countries. ‘We have received more than 180 candidate applications from all around the world,’ says Guido Van Oost, professor at the University of Ghent and coordinator of the programme, ‘while we have only 24 bursaries to offer.’ The initial intake includes only two citizens of the European Union… a fine international acknowledgement of Europe’s position as world leader in the field of nuclear fusion research.

  1. The Complutensian University, the Carlos III University and the Polytechnic University.