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US Rejoins International Fusion Project - 2003-01-31

The United States has rejoined an international project to develop a cheap, renewable form of safe nuclear energy called fusion. The partners are developing the world's first nuclear fusion reactor.

U.S. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham says nuclear fusion is a key element in the long term U.S. energy program because it offers the potential for plentiful, safe energy. In remarks at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory in New Jersey, Mr. Abraham said the United States is rejoining the nuclear fusion project that it helped form in the 1980s with Russia, the European Union, Japan, and Canada, but which it quit in 1998.

The so-called International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor project, or ITER, began with an agreement at the 1985 U.S.-Soviet Geneva Summit. But the U.S. Congress ordered the government to pull out because it considered the original $10 billion reactor design too expensive.

Faced with a sharp drop in the budget, the remaining ITER members redesigned the reactor at half the cost, making it attractive again to the United States. The U.S. share of the new $5 billion budget is 10 percent. The Department of Energy says construction of the reactor could begin in 2006 and be operational in 2014. Fusion research would last 20 years.

Fusion is the energy that powers stars. The nuclei of light elements such as hydrogen fuse together to make heavier elements, such as helium. The fusing process gives off tremendous amounts of energy.

Although the concept has long been understood, harnessing fusion on a scale big enough to provide useful amounts of energy has been elusive in the 60 years research has been taking place.

But a fusion power plant would not give off greenhouse gas emissions as fossil fuels such as oil and coal do, nor would it produce radioactive material as does the other form of nuclear energy called fission. The source of hydrogen for the energy-producing reaction would be water, a combination of hydrogen and oxygen molecules.

The ITER reactor will use doughnut-shaped magnetic coils to induce an electric current in a mixture of charged particles, making conditions hot enough to create fusion reactions like those inside stars.

Europe, Canada, and Japan have offered potential sites for the reactor. China has recently joined the project negotiations.