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The European Union announced yesterday that the world's largest ever fusion reactor will be built in France, at a total cost of around $12bn.

Competition to secure the 30-year International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) project has been intense, but Japan withdrew its bid last week leaving the floor open for the French bid. The US and South Korea has been supporters of the Japanese bid, but the French option had the backing of the EU, China and Russia.

The ultimate goal of the project is to finally crack the problem of how to tap into the immense power of nuclear fusion. Fusion is the same process that goes on in the centre of the sun, and it holds the promise of almost inexhaustible, clean safe energy generation.

For nuclei to fuse, a plasma needs to be heated up to several hundred million degrees while it is contained within an intense magnetic field. The trick will be finding a way of doing this without putting in more energy than is generated.

The problem is that the solution is always, and has always been 25 (or so) years away.

The details of how the project will be financed have still got to be hashed out, but the EU is expected to pick up 40 per cent of the tab, France a further 10 per cent, with the remainder shared between the other international partners: the US, Russia, Japan, South Korea and China.

Once the facility has been built, experiments are expected to start in about 2015. The research is likely to continue for around 20 years.

In the best case scenario, a demonstration plant would be built in 2030, with the technology being developed commercially by the middle of the century. ®

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