Honchos from Durham jetted to Moscow this week hoping to convince nuclear industry types to pick Darlington, just outside Oshawa, as the site for a $12-billion research facility to study fusion technology.Construction of the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), as it's known, is estimated to take 10 years.
And despite the fact that the ITER project will not produce any usable power in its operation, proponents are eager to champion it as an economic opportunity for Ontario. And that, say its many critics, is precisely the problem -- the whole exercise looks suspiciously like a short-term windfall for private business rather than a viable long-term energy solution.
Indeed the amount of capital generated for the project is astounding. Federal and provincial governments have both ponied up $3 million for the initial bid, with the Ontario government promising $300 million of Canada's $2-billion construction portion over the next 10 years. The remaining amount will be provided by the private sector, largely in the form of in-kind contributions like location, energy and wholesale contracts
According to Dr. Peter Barnard, president and CEO of ITER Canada, a non-profit organization heading the bid, the project will generate thousands of jobs, attract 250 of the world's top scientists and initiate dozens of advanced technologies. "You've got a high-tech gold mine sitting in our country for companies, entrepreneurs, universities and research institutions," says Barnard.
A 35-page oversized glossy magazine depicting the faces of smiling children with the tag "It's about our children's future / It's about economic growth / It's about our environment / It's about our community" has been produced to sell the bid.
Inside, articles offer glowing reviews from a who's who of political heavies and boast supportive advertising from a bevy of businesses. ITER Canada hosts no fewer than five Web sites where readers can learn more about the bid and the "miraculous" benefits fusion technology may hold for the Durham region.
Scientists and environmentalists, however, are not buying the "clean energy for the future" hype -- nor are they sold on the benefits of fusion technology. Says David Martin, nuclear policy adviser for the Sierra Club of Canada: "This is a massive high-tech boondoggle that has quite a few risks, high costs and no practical value in the foreseeable future."
Fusion technology is a relic of the Cold War, originally conceptualized as a way to power laser beams from space. Unlike fission technology, which splits heavy atoms into lighter ones, fusion energy literally fuses together lighter elements into heavier ones, creating a plasma reaction similar to that inside the sun.
Containing the reactions is no small feat. Deactivation, cleanup and decommissioning will take 75 years.
Martin warns that the fusion reactor will produce large amounts of radioactive waste and airborne pollution. He also adds that the amount of energy required to power the fusion reactor could easily drive energy rates up for Ontario consumers.
Derek Paul, a former University of Toronto physicist with almost 50 years experience, says the ITER project has nothing to do with sound science. Paul is keen to point to alternative energy sources like wind and solar power as more attainable than costly, energy-intensive fusion technology, which is still some 50 to 150 years away from commercial applications.
"You cannot justify this project as being part of the world's energy future," Paul says. "It absolutely makes no sense at all. The point at which the fusion prototype is built and delivers energy to the grid is as far away today -- if not more so -- than it was in the 1950s." Paul is also skeptical about whether the project will have enough tritium to fuel the massive reactor.
Indeed, since tritium is only available as a by-product of nuclear reactors, the ITER project is dependent upon the continued operation of nuclear energy plants. Still, Durham is determined to push forward.
The project recently received approval of the guidelines for the environmental assessment that Martin calls "the lowest possible level of assessment." It will be conducted in-house by the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, without cross-examinations or funding for submissions by environmental and public groups.
And although the enviro assessment is contingent on Canada getting the bid, the actual design of the fusion reactor will not be completed until after the host country is chosen.
For Durham region chair Roger Anderson, the fact that fusion is a costly, unproven technology with associated risks does not eliminate the need to try.
"If you didn't have research facilities, you wouldn't have scanners or cancer treatment facilities or penicillin," says Anderson. "If there is a more efficient and better way of producing energy, then you should pursue it."
And while the science and the economic arguments remain tenuous at best, the real impetus of the ITER project appears to lie in immediate gains for the private sector. According to Anderson, should the bid not go to Durham, Canada would withdraw from the program despite all the professed miracles of fusion technology.