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Inside fusion's fortress

Alan Boyle / MSNBC.com

The entrance to Chateau de Cadarache
has a medieval look.


You can count on the French to add a little joie de vivre to the most unlikely of pursuits – for example, by bringing haute cuisine to the battlefield. So it shouldn't be surprising that France's nuclear industry has a bit of elan as well: Witness the Chateau de Cadarache, a medieval castle that serves as the home away from home for scientists and engineers working at the country's top nuclear research site.

The setting is stunning: Far below the fortress, the Vordure River flows into the Durance, and on through Provence toward Marseille and the Mediterranean. The grounds boast plenty of walking paths, including a trail up to the stone chapel on a nearby hill. The chateau's rooms are spacious, and the restaurant menu offers glazed duck and other delicacies, plus a carefully thought-out selection of local wines. You might think you're at a resort, rather than at the site where the future of fusion power could well be forged.

Two years ago, Cadarache was selected as the site for the world's biggest nuclear fusion experiment, a $13 billion international project known as ITER. The ground has not yet been fully cleared for the new reactor. Construction is expected to last until 2016. And ITER's partners don't expect to demonstrate commercially viable energy production until 2040 or so. Nevertheless, things are humming around Cadarache: The talk at the dinner table (yes, over a tangy glass of Chateau de Clapier Cuvee Soprano) was about how housing prices are going up, and how rooms at the chateau are getting scarcer.

ITER isn't the only reason for the influx: As my colleagues at MSNBC.com reported earlier this year, nuclear fission may be making a comeback, with Europe leading the pack. Some of the chateau's guests spend several nights a week here, working on fission-related projects during the day at the nearby facilities of the French Atomic Energy Commission. The commission, known here by the French acronym CEA, recently marked the 60th anniversary of its founding - and in 2009, Cadarache itself will be hitting the Big 5-0 as one of the agency's main research centers.

OECD / NEA

The Chateau de Cadarache, seen at the center of
this aerial photo, is surrounded by scenery.


One of the engineers commuting to Cadarache actually works for Areva, the agency's commercial spinoff. During dinner, we chatted about alternative technologies for separating out radioactive waste and eventually disposing of it deep underground, a la Yucca Mountain. It sounds as if the French are wrestling with the same kinds of issues Americans are facing when it comes to long-lasting nuclear waste.

In addition to its activities in France, Areva is angling for a share of the U.S. market for nuclear management - and generating political controversy in the process.

Nuclear research is rife with opportunities for political wrangling. For example, a standoff between Japan and Europe held up an agreement on the ITER project for three years. Both parties wanted to be the host for the reactor site, and neither would yield. Finally, negotiators (at times working here at the Chateau de Cadarache) came up with a Solomonic solution: Europe would get the ITER reactor site – and as a consolation prize, Japan would get favored status for procurement contracts and staff appointments, including the directorship.

The man who got the ITER concept going in the first place told me he's worried that such politics could hurt the fusion project before it really gets started. "That is my fear," said Robert Aymar, who went on from ITER's directorship in 2004 to become the director general of CERN, Europe's particle physics research center.

"It looks like now every decision, which should be purely technical, will become a political issue which is discussed by ambassadors and so on - and that is not something which is nice, for technical reasons," Aymar said last week at CERN, on the French-Swiss border. "ITER is a large experiment to build, and very complex and very difficult. To assume that you can solve that by splitting any decision by individuals from seven countries who are probably not competent for that role ... Bargaining that is not something which we should do."

Over the past week, we've seen how CERN is gearing up for its own big scientific challenge: next year's scheduled startup of the Large Hadron Collider. Next we'll delve into the challenges facing ITER as it starts toward its date with fusion's fate.

Previously from the Big Science Tour: The science behind the tour ... Living in the Web's cradle ... Inside the big-bang machine ... Toiling in the fields of physics ... Inside the antimatter factory ... First, the Web ... now, the Grid ... Suspense on a subatomic scale.