Clock running down as ITER Canada continues to wait for federal decision

Guest Contributor
August 27, 2003

Canadian participation unclear

Frustration and anxiety are growing as the federal government continues to delay its decision on whether to contribute $1.15 billion to the international ITER project. A funding commitment from Ottawa is a prerequisite for Canada to remain in the running to host and/or participate in the massive fusion energy research project. If Ottawa agrees to back the project, it will trigger a pledge by the Ontario government to match the federal contribution.

Canada remains the only participant in ITER whose national government has not committed financial resources to the fusion reactor and a long-term fusion research program. A decision expected last June did not materialize — likely due to lack of sufficient Cabinet support — and backers of the ITER Canada bid to host the $14-billion facility are compelled to wait even as the clock runs down.

“Canada must come up with serious money or withdraw,” says Jim Campbell, lead negotiator for Canada at the international table. “The other parties are becoming somewhat impatient. It’s difficult for them to move ahead when the Canadian situation is somewhat obscure.”

It’s anticipated that Cabinet will make a decision in September, but any further delays dramatically increase the risk the that Canada will be left behind . The other seven nations participating in the discussions will simply proceed with selecting a site for the facility and arranging for its financing without Canada’s participation.

The federal government must come up with $1.15 billion, or half the estimated $2.3-billion cost of participating in the project, whether or not Canada wins the site selection. In order to clear the way for such an approval, Cabinet must reverse its 2001 decision not to support ITER financially.

Ontario’s Cabinet has formally committed to provide the other half of the financing, contingent upon federal matching funds (R$, May 22/03). The provincial government has appointed Dr Tony Vandervoet, director of its research, technology and innovation branch at the Ministry of Enterprise, Opportunity and Innovation (MEOI), to take charge of the ITER file.

“The federal government hasn’t rejected anything out of hand (but) until we have their decision, there’s not much we can do,” says Vandervoet. “I’m in a holding pattern.”


The international ITER community is seeking more from Canada than financial backing. It also wants to see the re-establishment of fusion R&D in Canada as part of a coordinated national fusion program. A high-level expert committee assembled by Univ of Toronto president Dr Robert Birgeneau has fully endorsed Canada’s need to become a “full party” participant in the ITER program.

The Canadian ITER Participation Assessment Committee — led by Dr Javad Mostaghimi, vice-dean research and graduate studies with the Univ of Toronto’s faculty of applied science and engineering — also endorsed another key international demand. It calls for quick action to establish a fusion R&D program, beginning at $3.5 million annually and ramping up to $30 million annually after five or six years.

“Canada cannot afford not to be part of ITER. The commitments by the Europeans, Japan, Russia, the United States, China and possibly South Korea to go ahead with ITER provides the opportunity for Canada to be part of a tremendous research effort that no country can support on its own,” states the committee’s report, jointly commissioned by MEOI and Natural Resources Canada. “Should power generation by fusion reactors become a reality, the benefits for each participating country would be enormous.”

“Canada stands alone in the industrialized world with no current government policy in support of fusion and no significant funding for fusion research.” — ITER Canada presentation to federal & Ontario governments, March/03.

It’s widely acknowledged that the proposed Canadian site near Clarington ON is superior to competing sites in France, Spain and Japan. What is hindering Canada’s chances of hosting the facility is the lack of federal commitment and the nearly complete absence of fusion R&D. If Canada can convince the international community that it is willing to rectify these deficiencies, its chances of winning the site bid will be greatly enhanced.

“Is there an appetite to back ITER? That is precisely the question on the table,” says Dr Murray Stewart, ITER Canada president and CEO. “We believe there is (but) there are sub group meetings in the UK in September. If we go into early October (without a positive federal decision), we will be in serious difficulty. The train will leave the station without us. There is no tolerance left in the system to wait for one party to make a decision.”

The 30-member Canadian participation committee — composed of nine industrial members and 21 from academic and research institutions — was asked to answer six questions equally split between aspects of the science of fusion and ITER and details of a national fusion program. For the question relating to the requirements of such a program, the committee suggests that it should emphasize research into:

  • tritium handling technology;
  • remote maintenance technology;
  • plasma modelling; and
  • diagnostic development.
The committee also urged the government to leverage expenditures through support for collaboration with foreign laboratories and emphasize the training of highly qualified personnel in fusion.

The report singles out tritium handling and remote handling technologies as research areas with the greatest commercial potential. It notes that engineering, technology and materials dominate the early stages of the development of new energy systems.

“There is a direct and credible path, leading from R&D activity in these two areas today, to a major Canadian industry in a future where fusion systems are employed around the world — a future that sees Canada in net trade balance in a potentially major component of the energy sector,” states the committee report.

But it adds that an in-depth study into these areas is required, as well as an evaluation of the previous fusion program that ran from 1982 to 1997.

The $30-million price tag for a fully functioning R&D program is based on GDP benchmarks against other ITER participants — as well as on ‘bottom up’ cost estimates for a viable program. Perhaps not coincidentally, the amount is equal to that of Canada’s previous national fusion program, which was terminated in 1997 as part of the government’s cost-cutting measures.

Murray says the report by the Birgeneau-led team demonstrates that Canada has the capability to take advantage of ITER.

“This is the biggest science project in the first part of this century,” he asserts. “The way the process is working now, there should be an agreement done by the end of the year. The US wants action because it doesn’t want negotiations to stretch into another budget cycle.”


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