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View from Brussels: Financially-fit fusion?

Image credit: ITER

The ITER fusion project might not be close to creating carbon-free energy by replicating the power of the sun but it is creating jobs and boosting Europe’s industry, a new report reveals. For a venture that has been described as both a ‘chimaera’ and a ‘moonshot’, it is welcome news.

In the south of France, construction of a fusion reactor known as a tokamak is still ongoing as part of a multi-billion-euro project that brings together expertise and know-how from more than 30 countries.

The idea behind ITER is to show that fusion power is commercially viable and that electricity can be produced in substantial volumes. Although only a stepping stone toward a full-blown fusion plant, ITER aims to produce 500MW of power using a 50MW input.

But the future-orientated project, which is only scheduled to start proper testing in 2025 and last through the 2030s, has been regularly criticised for costing too much or taking too long to make a substantial contribution to the energy transition.

Green MEP Michèle Rivasi led calls in 2019 for the European Parliament to deny more funding for the ITER project, denouncing it as a “scientific chimaera” and a “Promethean dream”. Her colleagues eventually voted through the €6 billion bill regardless.

MEPs have, however, noted the construction delays and budget overruns that have hit the complex project, and questioned whether the EU should invest so much in a scheme that is unlikely to generate any power for public consumption before 2050.

ITER project leaders have insisted that the budget estimates are now accurate and construction is on track, while some energy analysts insist that the society of the later century will need fusion power to sustain itself.

The EU’s next long-term budget, a financial pot worth more than €1 trillion that will last up until 2027, dedicates about €5.6 billion to ITER, after negotiations between governments and EU officials moved some of the cash around.

A new economic assessment of the project has revealed that although it is nearly 15 years away from generating its first quantities of electricity, it is generating jobs. Between 2008 and 2019, ITER supported 29,500 jobs across its immense supply chain.

The jobs bonanza reached its peak in 2018 and 2019, suggesting that as construction of the reactor ploughs ahead, even more positions can be created. The study says that for every one direct job created, another one was created indirectly.

“The longer ITER operations are in place, the more jobs are created,” the EU-commissioned study insists. It also points to the economic windfall that the project has stimulated over the last decade.

According to its findings on the net impact on the European economy, the study says ITER has netted €104 million. Most of that benefit is derived from investments in research and development.

“The hefty investment in ITER does not only contribute to the economic growth in terms of GVA and employment but also contributes to the intellectual, human and industrial capital to indirectly harness the European industry and progress the European society,” the study adds.

The authors add that the project must now broaden its horizons and start investing in R&D programmes to solve issues that the main ITER project will inevitably create, such as gridding the power the reactor produces.

Although that is not expected to be possible before 2050, the study urges the project’s organisers to get ahead of the game and prepare for it now, especially since investments are having a positive impact on the economy.

The UK will continue to be involved in ITER’s developments, despite its withdrawal from the EU, as the Brexit agreement confirms that British involvement in the Horizon Europe research programme will be preserved.

Ian Chapman, who is head of the UK’s Atomic Energy Authority, called that decision an “early Christmas present” when it was announced in late 2020.

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