ITER Canada bid to host massive fusion facility gets backing of Ontario Cabinet
May 22, 2003
Assistance hinges on federal buy-in
Canada’s efforts to remain in the running to host the massive $14-billion ITER fusion project are getting down to the wire as the competition heats up over which country will be selected. While the federal government has yet to announce whether it will contribute to the estimated $2.3-billion pricetag associated with Canada’s involvement in the fusion research project, Ontario has stepped up to the plate with an offer to cover half the costs.
The provincial Cabinet approved a deal late last week that would see Ontario share equally in Canada’s financial and other obligations to ITER. That nearly triples Ontario’s original offer of $300 million to $1.15 billion, but it hinges on Ottawa agreeing to back the project and revive fusion research in this country after its cancellation in the late 1990s.
The Ontario decision represents a major boost to Canada’s chances of mounting a successful bid. ITER Canada — the body responsible for organizing and promoting the Canadian position — is hoping that the federal government will quickly announce what it’s prepared to offer. A clear consensus and an agreement in principle must be in place for the next key meeting of all stakeholders to be held June 19 in Vienna. The Ontario government plans to push the matter by organizing a scientific delegation to visit Ottawa in the coming weeks for a round of aggressive lobbying.
“It’s now a cliffhanger from what we put in motion last December,” says ITER president and CEO Dr Murray Stewart. “It’s time to decide as a country if we want to be involved in fusion.”
The decision to revise the Canadian bid was made after ITER International — the body overseeing the selection, cost sharing and other negotiations for the project — indicated that the Canadian bid was not competitive on several fronts. The federal government’s reluctance to contribute financially was a major factor, as was the Canadian position that it would not participate in the project unless Canada is successful in its bid to host the facility. It was also noted that the amount of fusion R&D conducted in Canada was extremely low, particularly since funding cuts associated with Program Review in the late 1990s.
“We came to the conclusion that we had to re-tool the bid. For it to be successful it must include a substantial contribution from the federal government and an increase in financial support from the province of Ontario,” says Stewart. “We now know what is expected from the host country. It was unclear at first but now we’ve put together various options. We will now be a party to the ITER project even if we’re not the host.”
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Murray would not comment on the status of negotiations between ITER’s backers and the federal government. But he says he is cautiously optimistic that Ottawa will deliver on the commitments necessary to give the Canadian bid a fighting chance against the competition – Japan, France and Spain. The decision earlier this year by the US to rejoin the negotiations is widely viewed as a positive development for Canada, given its close proximity and the size of its fusion program.
FEDS RESIST ENDORSING ITER
Reports of federal reluctance to embrace the ITER project and put money on the table could still scuttle Canada’s chances to host the project. Combined with the tight timeline for resolving the issue, behind-the-scenes negotiations have hit a fever pitch. Herb Dhaliwal, Natural Resources Canada minister responsible for the ITER file, is reportedly concerned about cost overruns and the long-term, uncertain nature of the science itself. Useful applications of fusion energy are many decades away, and the pressure is on governments at all levels to find alternative sources of sustainable energy that can be delivered in a far shorter timeframe.
Just as troubling is the current state of fusion R&D in Canada. Program Review and budget cutbacks at Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd effectively killed the majority of Canadian fusion R&D. That left only a smattering of activity in a handful of universities across the country.
“We have no national or coordinated program for fusion energy R&D. It stopped in 1998 under Program Review,” says Stewart. “Today we have pockets of capability at the University of Toronto, the University of Saskatchewan and the University of Quebec but it’s just a few professors and graduate students. We’re currently doing very little to support ITER.”
In response, a team of researchers led by the Univ of Toronto is currently putting together a potential fusion research program in time for the next critical meeting. That work is inextricably tied to what the two levels of government are doing, resulting in intense negotiations in Ottawa and Queen’s Park.
Stewart says a key challenge lies in the difficulty of slotting fusion R&D into an existing program. Since a new research program will require new money, it’s possible a new dedicated program may be created to support ITER, along with a domestic agency for delivering on the required commitments. Stewart says the relationship between the Canadian Space Agency and the International Space Station may serve as an effective model for moving ahead.
Indeed, the ITER project represents the world’s second largest science project after the Space Station. Construction costs are estimated at between $7 billion and $8 billion, while operating costs over the facility's 30-year life span will cost between $6 billion and $7 billion.
The proposed Ontario site at Clarington has several advantages over competing sites, including plentiful supplies of water and tritium — an essential component for generating fusion energy. The city of Clarington and surround municipalities are also getting in on the act, lobbying Ottawa to support the project and using a flashy website to encourage petitions and letters of support (www.itercommunity.com).
The ITER Community lobby group touts the benefits of ITER, including $9.4 billion in foreign investment, 98,000 person years of employment and considerable brain gain if hundreds of the world’s fusion researchers re-locate to Canada. The group recently purchased a large advertisement in the Toronto Star to reprint a letter to the prime minister, arguing that ITER “supports the objectives of your government as declared in ... Can-ada’s Innovation Strategy and Natural Resources Canada’s commitment to Sustainable Development”.