Lyubov Sobolevskaya, RIA Novosti commentator

Humanity does not want to give up the dream of an inexhaustible source of energy. Thermonuclear fusion, a form of energy that has only been managed to be used in the hydrogen bomb, is an inexhaustible source. In nature, this reaction occurs in stars and it is the source of the Sun's energy.

In order to prove that a thermonuclear power plant can be created, ITER ("the way" in Latin), a $4 billion international nuclear experimental fusion reactor project, was developed.

The project has been ready for a long time, however the participants (Russia, the United States, Japan, China, South Korea, and the European Union) cannot agree on where the international reactor will be built. Today, there are two possible locations for the reactor: Cadarache in southern France and Rokkasho, Aomory Prefecture, Japan. Russia and China support building the reactor in France, while the US and South Korea support building it in Japan.

"This question has been drawn out," Academician Yevgeny Velikhov, one of the leaders of the international project, told a RIA Novosti correspondent. "It could have been solved three years ago."

Velikhov said there might be a possibility of two ITER reactors being built.

"In order to tactically separate this confrontation," he said, "Europe suggests discussing the prospect of building such a power plant in France at an EU Council of Ministers meeting and inviting those who support the European proposal to take part in the project. A similar situation is developing in regard to Japan."

In Velikhov's opinion, preserving unity is essential. "That two power plants may be built is not horrible," he said. "Russia proposed such an option in December 2003 - let's build two reactors, but they should not be the same."

The scientist said that that many tasks could be divided. "The purpose of the main project," he said, "is to study the processes occurring in the reactor and totest the main technological solutions." And problems like researching new materials for thermonuclear power and many other things could be worked on at the second power plant.

Both Japan and France are prepared to finance 48% of the project and it was agreed that the losing party will pay 12%, while the rest of the countries will pay 10% each.

"Russia has stated firmly that it will contribute 10%," Velikhov said.

According to him, "Russia's role is very important now because today Russia connects all these projects and has been doing this from the start."

And these are not just claims, as the ITER is based on Russia's tokamak reactor, which is internationally known, like sputnik.

The tokamak (the word is a combination of the first syllables of top, camera and magnet in Russian) is a toroidal (doughnut-shaped) chamber, where a powerful magnetic field confines plasma, which no material can come in contact with. Fusion of the nuclei of the isotopes of hydrogen, deuterium and tritium takes place in the plasma.

The first tokamak was created in Moscow in 1955, and for 15 years only the Soviet Union conducted this research.

The "father" of the tokamak, academician Lev Artsimovich (1909-1973) was once asked when a thermonuclear power station would be built. He said: "When humanity needs it, or much earlier." However, the task appeared to be too difficult. Twenty years ago, another well-known Russian physicist, Boris Kadomtsev, said, "the practical use of thermonuclear energy will be possible by the end of the 20th century." Recently Russia's Nuclear Power Minister Alexander Rumyantsev named a new date, "by the end of the new [21st] century it will be necessary to switch to thermonuclear energy, and the first industrial electricity may be produced in the 2030s or 2040s."

The history of the international tokamak dates back to 1978, when Yevgeny Velikhov, the head of the Soviet thermonuclear program, proposed to the IAEA that the countries with the necessary technologies combine their efforts. At that time, it had become clear that the country would not be able to cope with the task singlehandedly.

To produce nuclear fusion, plasma needs to reach the temperature of the Sun,

tens of millions of degrees Celcius, and be concentrated and confined for a long time. So far, it has not been possible to confine plasma at the proper temperature and density in a single installation.

Work on the ITER project lasted 16 years, and the scientists are upset by the delay caused by the choice of a location for the reactor.

Both candidates, Japan and France, have large nuclear industries and hope that the construction of an international reactor would spur their further development. In Japan, nuclear power stations produce over one third of all electricity and in France about 80% of electricity is from nuclear power plants.

Scientists think that safety is one of the merits of a thermonuclear power plant, as compared to a nuclear plant. According to academician Vladimir Fortov, a thermonuclear power plant could be built in a densely populated area. Also, a thermonuclear power plant is not attractive to terrorists, because the fuel is hydrogen, which is harmless, and no nuclear materials are used at the plant.

"I think this question will be decided this year," Velikhov said. "And a good deal depends on the US elections. It would be very good if a thermonuclear power plant will be built in 30 years. We have to act fast."

Velikhov stressed one more important thing: "We have created an information loop around the world from Chicago, across Amsterdam, Europe and Russia to Khabarovsk in the Far East, and further on to China and again to the US. Now South Korea is joining and Japan is considering participating. This fiber optic ring is the main medium to be used to unite ITER in a single global laboratory. It has already practically been created and will develop further. Again, Russia played a leading role in it, though we are not champions in the Internet."

It is important, said academician Velikhov, that Russia's role is preserved and strengthened.

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