Thursday, November 11, 2004

Losing it the French way

Over the last two days, there has been an intense battle – and no we are not talking about the US Marine action in Fallujah. This one concerns the location of the proposed International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) project, a multinational experiment aimed at developing nuclear fusion for electricity production, the Holy Grail of nuclear science.

Altogether, the budget is projected to be €10 billion ($13 billion) over the next 30 years, promising rich pickings for the country which is to be its host. And, up to press, it was to be located in Rokkasho-Mura, in north eastern Japan, an option supported by two of the biggest backers, the United States and – rather predictably – Japan.

But that was to reckon without the European Union – and France. For those two days, during negotiations in Vienna, the EU has been pushing for the project go to Cadarache in southern France, obtaining the support of Russia and China. Initially blocked by the US, its resistance has been worn down and France is now looking to be the favourite.

Needless to say, this will not be achieved without large sums of money changing hands. According to Japanese sources, the matter is likely to be settled once the winner offers the loser a substantial consolation prize for the loss of the project. "The host will have to make a generous proposal to the non-host," said Satoru Ohtake, the director of nuclear fusion at Japan's science and technology ministry.

And from where is this "sweetener" to come? Enter "Brussels", where an EU official has conceded that the European Union had offered the requisite amount of dosh, but then refused to say how much, other than it was "a reasonable offer".

If the project does go to France, however, EU munificence will not end there. The EU plans to finance 40 percent of the €10 billion budget, while the French government is only having to pay €914 million, or 20 percent of total construction cost – for which it will have a facility that employs 3,500 scientific workers.

To be even-handed about this, there is some sense in the project going to Cadarache, as there is already a nuclear research facility there. The project could be up and running very quickly as the infrastructure and science base is already in position. Nevertheless, what would be the betting on the same level of EU support being available if the UK was in the bidding instead of France?

Who ever said that France was losing its influence in the portals of the European Union? And if it is, could we please also start losing it as well - the French way?

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