American physicists working on the international thermonuclear experimental (ITER) reactor in Garching, Germany, and Naka, Japan, are packing their bags and returning home. The United States has signalled that it intends to withdraw from the international project in the summer, leaving the European Union, Russia and Japan to continue the work.
"All US scientists will be withdrawn by the end of the year," said Ron Parker, a senior physicist at Garching, who is returning to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
"America has agreed to continue for one year but, in effect, this is notice of withdrawal," he said. The ITER site in San Diego, California, will close with the loss of about 60 staff, he added. European, Russian and Japanese scientists working at the San Diego centre will transfer to the Garching and Naka sites.
The four partners have spent 13 years and more than $1 billion designing ITER. The device, which has not yet been built, is designed to create nuclear fusion, the same energy that powers the sun. Harnessing fusion power could offer several advantages over today's nuclear power plants, which use fission rather than fusion to generate electricity. The fuel for fusion, deuterium and tritium, is abundant and the fusion process is inherently safe.
"The US has given a clear signal that it is not interested in the construction," a senior source in the European fusion programme said. It has been contributing less and less and it will be relatively straightforward for Europe, Russia and Japan to continue without the Americans, he added. The US withdrawal shortens the short-list of places where ITER could be built: the leading contenders are now in Japan and Italy.
ITER construction had already been delayed for three years while the four partners examined cheaper alternatives.
The original design, which would have cost about $10 billion, is too expensive. Partners are looking at other options that would cost about $3 billion. This means that the machine will be a further demonstration of the fusion principle rather than a working power station.