Managers from the ITER fusion reactor project in France held urgent meetings at the European Commission in Brussels today following Wednesday's collapse of the commission's plan for filling a €1.4-billion ITER funding hole in 2013. The message they heard from the Commission was: Don't panic, we still have 12 months to sort out this problem.
The Commission, the European Union's executive agency, had wanted to use unspent funds from the E.U.'s 2010 budget to pay for European ITER contracts needed in 2012-13. ITER is a global project to develop fusion energy, and the European Union is its major backer, contributing 45% of its estimated €16 billion cost. But the commission's budget shuffle fell foul of political bargaining over the whole 2011 E.U. budget. Rebecca Harms, a Green Party member of the European Parliament (MEP), says that she and her party have always opposed ITER and on this occasion, even though most legislators support fusion, the Greens persuaded other blocs that it wasn't appropriate using unspent funds in this way. "The Commission and the Council of Ministers [which represents member states] want to close this funding gap for ITER, but now they must look for a new trick," she says.
According to MEP Herbert Reul, chair of the parliament's Committee on Industry, Research and Energy: "This was not a political decision against ITER and I am convinced that the ITER project still has the support of a majority of members. I don't think that it set a precedent for the resolution of ITER financing issues either." The Greens, along with other left-wing and centrist groups, he says, "thought it better to take the loss as they deemed general budget principles and the [Parliament's] role in the procedure to be more important. Personally, I certainly don't endorse this approach."
The Commission reassured ITER managers today that this won't affect the project's budget or schedule, but it must now go back to the drawing board and come up with another plan to finance ITER during 2012 and 2013. ITER Director-General Osamu Motojima said in a statement: "After in-depth discussions with representatives of the European Commission in Brussels today, we were reassured that the E.U.'s commitment to ITER remains as strong as it is. [The ITER Organization] appreciates very much the effort that E.U. is doing on this issue."
Harms, however, predicts trouble ahead. It was announced today that the leaders of the United Kingdom, France, and Germany are calling for the E.U.'s budget to be frozen at or below the rate of inflation until the end of this decade. "This is a provocation of the European Parliament," Harms says. "If these three heads of state turn against the Parliament, they cannot depend on the Parliament approving their most beloved project."