PARIS – With yellow flags and banners raised, the anti-nuclear protesters shouting "Nuclear equals cemetery" (which rhymes in French) outside of the historic Pantheon earlier this month were just one link along a city-wide human chain of demonstrators. The focus of the assembly was the controversial International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) nuclear fusion research center being built in France, and details on the project seemed scarce and the participants uninformed. SmartPlanet was there, listening for sounds of nuclear pioneers Pierre and Marie Curie, interred in the Pantheon a mere ten yards away, turning over in their graves.
French activist network Sortir du Nucléaire (Eliminate Nuclear) spearheaded the protest that attracted 4,000 people according to police, while organizers counted upwards of 20,000 participants. With different meeting points featuring speakers and specific focuses, the spot in front of the Pantheon was dedicated to the ITER project, something that few in France fully understand but that many oppose vehemently.
SmartPlanet correspondent Jennifer Riggins detailed the project in yesterday's article. In short, ITER is a joint effort between the EU and six other countries that began in 1985 to build a research center in the south of France that will develop ways to create huge quantities of energy by reproducing the nuclear reactions in the sun -- nuclear fusion. Unlike traditional fission used in existing power plants, nuclear fusion involves the fusing of two atoms instead of splitting them, which theoretically should yield even more energy and produce less long-term nuclear waste.
While the U.S. and China have debated their share of the spending, many in France oppose the EU's enormous financial investment in the project, in addition to the unknown environmental risks that it could pose. For insrance, Sortir du Nucléaire opposes the project because the expensive, experimental reactor may never actually be able to produce energy commercially, there are unknown risks associated with fusion reactors, which still produce radioactive waste. The group also points to longstanding promises for cleaner fusion energy stemming from the 1950s and argues that governments are ignoring current matters in favor of ongoing research that may never yield results. "While entertaining the myth of an ever-abundant energy source in a few decades, ITER is diverting attention from real solutions to energy problems like renewable resources and energy conservation," said Charlotte Mijeon, of Sortir du Nucléaire.
With the 27 EU nations fronting nearly 50 percent of the thirteen billion euro construction project, plus an additional 5-6 billion euros in projected maintenance costs over 20 years thereafter, many feel that the money and research would be better spent on renewable sources and addressing immediate problems instead. France alone has coughed up nearly 1.2 billion euros, nearly a fifth of the EU’s contribution.
Michel Claessens, head of communication at ITER, said that the money isn't actually a huge issue for participating nations, nor is it being taken from sustainable energy research. "It’s spread out across 34 countries over ten years of construction. So as far as each state is concerned, it's a relatively modest sum," he said.
But with 2011's Fukushima reactor disaster still fresh in the collective memory, the protestors rallying with Sortir du Nucléaire were also concerned about the uncertainty of fusion, which few at the protest seemed to understand at all.
Having protested in the '80s during the Chernobyl disaster, Parisian Virigine Lapier brought her daughter Willow to make their voices heard during the human chain. "Nuclear energy is an important discovery, we can't deny that. But we haven't mastered it yet, we have to realize that," Lapier said. While not versed in the ITER project, she remained against it. "That's not what the focus [of research] should be on," she said, explaining her support instead for other forms of safer energy.
Elisabeth Briffaut has been protesting for the past four years against France's nuclear projects. She is convinced that we can live without nuclear energy. When asked why she was at the Pantheon location of the human chain protesting ITER, however, she was less sure. "I don't actually look into the details anymore," she said, offering no comment on the project.
With little press coverage or public information, the public sees ITER more like an extension of the old nuclear power plants that French President Hollande vowed to shut down during his campaign last year. By placing the ITER project in Cadarache, in the south of France, it seems to them that he is backtracking on his word.
Claessens, however, said that the fission programs that the president discussed ending are very different from the fusion program, which provides less waste that will decay faster. "A month or so ago we welcomed the research minister of the French government, Madame Fioraso, who had a very favorable response to ITER," he said. "But of course there will be costs, notably in construction of the reactors, that we don’t know yet because we aren't in the industrialization phase yet," he said, reiterating the fact that the ITER site in France will not provide consumers energy. It is merely a research facility for developing a prototype that can be used in the future.
Beyond potentially curing an energy crisis, ITER has already created jobs for 200 people currently involved in the site's construction, and an estimated 3,000 more workers are expected by 2014. Aris Apollonatos of Fusion for Energy, the group overseeing the EU's participation in ITER, also said, "According to one study, 1,400 indirect jobs would be created in the region and 2,400 jobs during ITER's operation phase."
The real effects, however, will be long-term solutions to energy shortages, he said. ITER participants are hoping that the research will be invaluable for the future when carbon and petroleum become scarce. Renewable energy sources like wind and water may not be enough, but nuclear energy as it is currently creates too much pollution and risk. With fusion, that could change. "Fusion, and by consequence ITER, is part of the long-term sustainable energy mix given the fact that it does not emit any carbon dioxide," Apollonatos said.
Mijeon said that she's not surprised that the French government has participated so willingly in ITER. "The leaders of the most nuclear-minded nation in the world would obviously boast about an enormous international research project in their country," she said. While she was happy with the protest, she regrets that little activist attention has been paid to ITER on a larger scale because more pressing matters like nuclear waste storage and disposal from existing plants rank higher on the protesters' priority list.
Still, Sortir du Nucléaire members are convinced that the uncertainty of fusion is not worth the long-term investment that may never pay off if ITER can't produce results. As construction carries on in the south of France, both supporters and protesters will have to wait until 2020 for the ITER site to start trials.
Photos: Bryan Pirolli