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Decision on nuclear fusion plant delayed

The international sponsors of an experimental fusion reactor said they needed more time to decide whether it should be built in France or Japan.
/ Source: The Associated Press

International sponsors of a project to generate energy by reproducing the sun's power source failed Saturday to agree on whether to build the world's first large-scale nuclear fusion reactor in France or Japan.

Representatives from the European Union, the United States, Russia, South Korea, China and Japan said in a statement after meeting for more than three hours that they need additional time to pick a site.

"We have two excellent sites ... so excellent in fact, that we need further evaluation before making our decisions based on consensus," according to the statement.

The sponsors also announced "a rapid exploration of the advantages of a broader project approach to fusion power."

When asked to elaborate, the deputy director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, who moderated the talks, explained that the development of fusion power means more than building the reactor and involves scientific and technical activities.

Taking those factors into consideration, Werner Burkart said, might be "helpful in finding consensus" on siting the reactor.

Further questions about the sites will go to France and Japan by the end of the month; responses are expected by February. The next meeting probably will come in February. The location was not announced.

France vs. Japan
France and Japan are the finalists in a bidding war for the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor project, which is expected to cost $12 billion over 35 years. The stakes are high because the project means jobs, government subsidies and prestige.

France's proposed site is in the southeastern town of Cadarache. Japan is promoting Rokkasho village on the main island's northern tip.

Scientists at the Princeton University Plasma Physics Laboratory in Plainsboro, N.J., one of 10 national labs funded by the Department of Energy, are expected to help lead U.S. research on the project.

The Princeton lab is considered the country's premier center for research on magnetic fusion. Its staff has been conducting energy experiments for about four years on its latest generation of experimental fusion reactor, a huge device called the National Spherical Torus Experiment.

The project "remains an absolute priority for Europe. We are utterly convinced that our human, financial and technological advantages should allow us to see through this project," France's minister of research and new technologies, Claudie Haignere, said in a statement issued by her ministry.

The promise of fusion
The international energy project, first proposed more than a decade ago, is designed to study the potential of fusion power as a cleaner alternative to fossil fuels, such as coal and oil. By some estimates, fossil fuels may run short in about 50 years.

Fusion, which powers the sun and stars, involves colliding tiny atoms at extremely high temperatures and pressure inside a reactor. When the atoms fuse into a plasma, they release energy that can be harnessed to generate electricity.

Fusion power produces no greenhouse gas emissions and only low levels of radioactive waste. The reactor would run on an isotope of hydrogen, an abundant source of fuel that can be extracted from water.

Fusion reactors do not consume uranium or plutonium — the fuel of conventional, fission reactors — and do not use an atomic chain reaction. As a result, there is little risk of a radioactive meltdown.