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Thursday, Jan. 24, 2002

Site sought for fusion project

Critics clamor about ITER feasibility, safety, costs


Staff writer

The government is expected to soon announce its candidacy to host an international nuclear fusion project, despite the concerns of citizens, lawmakers and scientists about its safety and feasibility.

The government regards the project as a promising new power source for a country that is lacking in natural resources and has suffered a series of accidents at its nuclear plants.

The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor Project envisions using nuclear fusion technology, the development of which remains in an embryonic state, to make electricity in a manner similar to the way the sun creates energy. It is altogether different from the nuclear fission technology used in conventional nuclear reactors.

The Council for Science and Technology Policy, the top government body in compiling the nation's science and technology policies, issued a report in December stating that it recognizes the significance of Japan hosting the ITER nuclear fusion project.

Some experts have estimated the project will cost 1 trillion yen. Others say it will run more. According to the Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry, it would cost 700 billion yen to host the project, compared with 300 billion yen if the country does not host but instead participates in a joint project.

Citizens and lawmakers Monday held a meeting to protest the project and submitted an appeal to the government to halt it.

"The nuclear fusion project would be a huge waste of money and a threat to the environment and the safety of residents at the site," said Renko Kitagawa, a Lower House lawmaker of the Social Democratic Party.

On Tuesday, a two-day intergovernmental meeting on the project kicked off in the Koto Ward of Tokyo. At the meeting, officials of the ITER participants -- Japan, Russia, Canada and the European Union -- held preliminary discussions about how to decide on a site for an experimental fusion reactor.

When heated to 100 million degrees, heavy hydrogen or tritium -- a radioactive isotope of hydrogen -- becomes plasma, causing atomic nuclei in the substances to collide and combine, producing energy. Plasma is a nonconductive, highly ionized gas. It is a phase of matter distinct from solids, liquids and normal gases. At present, the hydrogen bomb is the only practical use of nuclear fusion.

The project was first proposed in 1985 at a U.S.-Soviet summit. Although the U.S. backed out of the project in 1998 due to financial concerns, Washington has recently indicated it may rejoin the project.

The countries plan to decide on the site for the fusion reactor at a meeting to be held in France in May.

It will take 10 years to build the reactor and another 20 to operate it on an experimental basis, according to ministry officials.

Japan has been considering the use of nuclear fusion as an alternative energy source for some time. The government, hoping to "create a sun on the Earth," invested 594.8 billion yen in the development of nuclear fusion technology between 1968 and 2000, according to the ministry.

Three municipalities have announced their candidacies as host site. According to a report issued by the ministry in October, the towns of Naka, Ibaraki Prefecture, and the village of Rokkasho, Aomori Prefecture are considered the top candidates for the ITER project. The city of Tomakomai, Hokkaido, is regarded as less promising.

However, some residents of the candidate sites as well as nongovernmental organizations and scientists have lodged protests with the state and local governments bidding to host the project.

Tadahiro Katsuta, an employee of Citizens' Nuclear Information Center and an expert on nuclear science, questioned the safety of the project.

According to Katsuta, tritium can destroy DNA and produces radiation strong enough to pass through metal walls.

"It is dangerous to deal with even in a normal situation, and the impact of an accident at a reactor could be extensive," Katsuta warned.

Ryoichi Hirano, a member of a group of Aomori residents demanding the government stop transferring nuclear waste to the village of Rokkasho, criticized the central and local governments for promoting the project without fully informing local residents. Rokkasho is Japan's main dump site for nuclear waste.

According to a survey conducted by a private institute in the city of Aomori, less than 20 percent of those polled said they know about the project.

In the same survey, 41.1 percent of those polled in the prefecture said they are undecided about inviting the the project into Rokkasho. Some 36.1 percent said they are opposed to it and only 16.5 percent said they welcome the project. The poll was carried out in August on 285 people.

Hirano also criticized the prefecture for claiming the fusion project is safe when there is scant information to back its claim.

"(The prefectural government) is trying to make us blindly believe the project is safe and there is no problem," he said.

The feasibility of the fusion reactor has also been questioned by scientists, including Hiroaki Koide, a researcher at Kyoto University Research Reactor Institute.

It would be extremely difficult for scientists to develop technology to maintain the state of plasma of heavy hydrogen and tritium in a stable manner over a long period of time, which is essential to the project's success, according to Koide.

Other critics have pointed out that the fusion reaction itself is expected to require huge amounts of electricity, thereby making it an inefficient power source.

According to Katsuta of CNIC, it requires about of 500,000 kw of electricity to trigger an atomic reaction, which amounts to energy costs of about 10 million yen.

"Operating the reactor itself requires an extremely large amount of energy," Katsuta said, adding that, as a power source, "It is obviously not useful."



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