The next days of European Fusion Research

February 9, 2011

The ITER project is slowly gearing up and this has consequences on the fusion research policy of the different European states. There are three major tokamaks in Europe; when I say major, I mean by its size, the power injected and its relevance for ITER: JET of course, the leading machine in the world, a joint european project located in Culham, England; Tore-Supra, the french machine, located in Cadarache and ASDEX-Upgrade located in Garching, Germany. Actually, the nationality plays a minor role for the research itself: most teams are completely international. There are several other tokamaks, of lesser size, but all the same of significance for representative plasma research and diagnostics development: MAST, CASTOR, ISTTOK, and so on. And there are laboratory test beds for basic plasma physics and technology research. To these experiments, we can add all institutes, labs and universities dedicated to theoretical research. This is the present landscape of nuclear fusion research in Europe. ITER is looking like a major landslide on this environment.

A tremendous part of the budget for fusion of each state member is indeed going to ITER.  It appears more and more difficult to maintain both the financial effort on this project and on national projects. And the main targets of the budget cutoffs  are naturally the most expensive machines, the big tokamaks. As a result, Tore-Supra is living its few last years, maybe until 2014. The future of JET is in question. The costs on ASDEX-Upgrade are seriously restrained but for the moment it keeps going, hoping to have enough relevant results to be considered a satellite tokamak for ITER (ITER is not suited for all physics experiments and some small-scale tokamaks will probably be required to test with more flexibility some phenomena observed on JET).

But there is a problem in this situation: If tokamaks are closing, where will all scientists go? There is no work yet on ITER for them, since the machine does not exist: this means that we have to find some activities to fill in the 10 years-long gap between the end of some tokamaks and the first plasmas of ITER. If not, we will have a giant tokamak but without european scientists to work on it (do not worry, there will be scientists but from Japan, China, India, Corea and certainly from the US too).

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