ITER: Much ado about nothing?

By Claude Allegre

Nuclear fusion reactor installation in Cadarache would be bad news for our research

The president proudly announced that France would 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 the local communities dry and will further weaken the French research budget. Cost of the operation: 12 billion euros! Iter is still one of those prestigious projects which have, in the past, exhausted the finances of our research. First it was high definition television, then the construction of the large national heavy ion accelerator (Ganil) in Caen, then manned 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's extraordinary, it's the future! That is what we said already forty years ago, when the project for the study of 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 merge 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 you know how to carry out the fusion in an explosive way, you cannot control it. And, for forty years, we have been going in circles. Projects like Iter, we installed them 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 driving force behind this research - they funded 60% of it - abandoned it. Perhaps they will participate up to 5% tomorrow? Have they given up on the idea of ​​mastering fusion? Not at all, but they resort to more clever and less expensive methods.

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