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Fusion reactor eats Euro science budgets

Small catastrophe predicted

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More than a billion euros will be channeled to the astronomically over-budget ITER fusion reactor rather than to a broad range of needy European research projects.

"This will not make us friends," one senior fusion boffin, who declined to be identified, confessed to Nature, which reported the research-funding switcheroo.

The ITER project, which has the goal of (someday) fusing hydrogen isotopes to create (possibly affordable) energy, has been beset by budget horrors since its inception in 2006.

According to Nature, the south-of-France reactor was originally projected to cost €5bn (£4.2bn, $6.3bn), a figure that seems laughably understated today. Nature cites "unoffical estimates" that put the true projected cost to be in the neighborhood of €15bn (£12.6bn, $18.9bn).

The most pressing financial need is $1.4bn (£800m, $1.8bn) needed for the 2012-2013 construction budget. That money has to come from somewhere, in the opinion of Achilleas Mitsos, former EC director-general for research. "Europe cannot afford not to go forward with the project," he told Nature, citing heavy political and financial ramifications if ITER is cancelled.

And the EU's Seventh Framework Programme (FP7) will come to the rescue, even though the EC has said that diverting FP7 funds would have "a significantly negative effect on a range of policies and programmes".

The EC asked its member states to fork up more cash to help bail out ITER, but in these days of austerity, that was a non-starter. And so it appears that FP7 funds will almost certainly be used to keep the Big Science ITER beast fed.

"I think it's a small catastrophe in the present situation," European Research Council president Helga Nowotny told Nature about the diversion of funds. "It's bad for European research." ®

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