France seeks to harness energy at heart of sun

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France and the European Union appear to have won a long diplomatic battle to host a €10bn (£6.7bn) international experiment to master a clean and limitless new form of nuclear energy.

France and the European Union appear to have won a long diplomatic battle to host a €10bn (£6.7bn) international experiment to master a clean and limitless new form of nuclear energy.

Agreement is expected before the summer that the Iter project, an attempt to recreate and harness the energy at the heart of the sun, should be built at Cadarache, near Aix-en-Provence, in southern France.

The project, to be funded by the US, the EU, Russia, China, Japan and South Korea, is seen as a potentially enormous contribution to the long-term energy problems of mankind. In the short term, it has fallen victim to mankind's capacity for pettiness.

Final agreement has been held up by a battle between the French and Japanese over which country will host the main experimental site and test reactor.

The US, following its spat with Paris over the Iraqi war, supported Japan. The EU, Russia and China have backed France. When Japan refused to give way, France and the EU threatened to go it alone.

French officials are now confident Japan will agree to host a secondary site, in return for a large share of the €4.7bn contracts for building the main reactor at Cadarache. In a TV interview, President Jacques Chirac said France was "on the point of winning agreement to have Iter" in France. "We will have it at Cadarache," he said.

His comments drew a diplomatic protest from Japan, which said it had not withdrawn its bid. But on Wednesday in Geneva, EU and Japanese officials agreed a framework for sharing the project, and construction contracts, between the main "host" country and the "also-ran" country, which will receive a secondary research centre. This is seen as a prelude to a deal allowing the main reactor to be built alongside an existing French atomic energy research site in Provence.

Iter - international thermonuclear experimental reactor - will be the second-largest international scientific project undertaken, after the International Space Station. The hope is that, within 40 years, the project will master a clean, cheap, safe and virtually inexhaustible form of energy, by fusing atoms, rather than splitting them.

Anti-nuclear groups, and some scientists, doubt the value of the project, saying attempts to harness "fusion" energy have led nowhere. Supporters admit there is no guarantee of success, but this is the first time the world has pooled its money, and best scientific talent, to experiment with all processes needed, rather than a part of the puzzle.

In nuclear fusion, atoms are made to collide and fuse inside a reactor at extremely high temperature, releasing heat that can be harnessed to produce electricity. This is believed to be the process which is at the source of the energy and heat produced by the sun and other similar stars. Present nuclear power stations operate on the principle of "nuclear fission", splitting atoms of uranium or plutonium and leaving waste materials which cannot be easily disposed of.

Nuclear fusion, if it can be mastered, would use as its main "fuel" isotopes of hydrogen which can be found in seawater anywhere in the world. The process would, in theory, leave no dangerous wastes.

France hopes that an Iter project in Provence will create 500 jobs at the plant and a further 1,500 in the region. Up to 3,000 jobs will be created in the 10-year construction stage.