ITER: Much ado about nothing?

By Claude Allegre

The installation in Cadarache of the nuclear fusion reactor would be bad news for our research

The president proudly announced to us that France was going to beat Japan and obtain the site of the experimental reactor of the future, which would be installed in Cadarache (Bouches-du-Rhône). And everyone to rejoice, especially in Provence, where politicians, proud, ignorant and naive, are convinced that Iter (International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor) will bring them wealth, prosperity and prestige!

Unfortunately, none of this will happen: Iter will bleed local communities dry and further weaken the French research budget. Cost of the operation: 12 billion euros! Iter is still one of those prestigious projects which, in the past, exhausted the funds of our research. First it was high definition television, then the construction of the large national heavy ion accelerator (Ganil) in Caen, then human space flights and, finally, the International Space Station. Results for science? Nothing, or almost. Today it is the Mégajoule laser, in Bordeaux, and Iter, in Cadarache.

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We are told: Iter is the energy of the Sun, it is extraordinary, it is the future! This is what was said already forty years ago, when the project to study controlled fusion began. The initial idea is certainly not uninteresting. Instead of splitting heavy atomic nuclei to obtain energy, as in current reactors, we seek to fuse light atomic nuclei to obtain even more energy. This is the sequence followed in the manufacture of atomic bombs. After the classic Hiroshima one, we made the H bomb, more powerful, more deadly, but less polluting (sic). However, if we know how to carry out fusion explosively, we do not know how to control it. And, for forty years, we have been going in circles. Projects like Iter, we set up in Princeton in the United States, then in Great Britain, but we never really progressed, for lack of an innovative scientific idea. The Americans, once the engines of this research - they funded it at 60% - have abandoned it. Maybe they will participate up to 5% tomorrow? But have they given up on the idea of ​​mastering fusion? Not at all, but they resort to smarter and cheaper methods.

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