A financial rescue package for the Iter fusion project remains in jeopardy after European Union (EU) politicians failed to agree a budget for 2011.
The package had included a commitment to find an additional €1.4 billion ($1.9 billion) in additional EU funds for the global nuclear fusion project in 2012 and 2013, which is 45% funded by the European Union. Iter has been suffering from significant budget overruns and as a result, is facing a major funding shortfall. The European Commission earlier this year decided to try and fill that hole, asking the European Parliament and the EU Council of Ministers – which is the EU's budgetary authority – to allocate the extra funds.
But late on 15 November, after marathon talks in Brussels, the council and the parliament were unable to agree a budget for next year, which means spending will be limited in 2011 to 2010 levels, and new initiatives – such as the additional Iter spending pledges will be dropped.
EU budget Commissioner Janusz Lewandowski said after the collapse in talks: "The [European] Commission deeply regrets the fiasco of the budgetary conciliation." He will now have to draft a new budget, and represent it to ministers and MEPs, a slow process that will almost certainly continue into 2011, and which has no guarantee of success. Meanwhile, 2010 spending levels will be maintained, month-by-month.
The failure will dash the hopes of Iter supporters that its budgetary problems were at an end – at least until 2013. There have been substantial overall cost increases for Iter which have more than doubled the costs for Europe. Because the EU is the host party of the Iter consortium (the reactor being built in France), it has agreed to contribute around 45% of Iter's estimated construction costs while the rest is equally divided amongst the other six parties: China, India, Japan, Russia, South Korea and the USA.
Under the commission's plan, as debated by ministers and MEPs, €460 million ($628 million) would have been found from within the EU's Seventh Research Framework Program on research. This is an important sum, given the overall budget of the program is €51 billion ($70 billion) over seven years, and would inevitably significantly reduce the money available for other research projects for 2012 and 2013.
Meanwhile, another €940 million ($1.3 billion) was to be secured through revising the EU's medium-term budget of 2007-13 – called its 'multiannual financial framework'. Here, under the plan, there would be three transfers of (hopefully unused) money earmarked for three policy areas: sub-heading 2 on the preservation and management of natural resources; sub-heading 3a on policies promoting freedom, security and justice; and sub-heading 5 on EU administrative spending. The Commission said the actual commitments for spending on these policy areas over 2007-13 should be unchanged, so the approved transfers assumes that there will be unspent money under these budget headings to transfer.
The decision on whether to release them had to be made by a conciliation committee linking the EU Council of Ministers and the European Parliament, a new body authorised under the EU's newest Lisbon Treaty of European Union. It has 27 members representing EU member states and 27 MEPs.
The president of the failed meeting, Belgium budget minister Melchior Wathelet said of Iter: "This is an important project in Europe and as a partner with other states. If the EU could not agree on a budget, not only would it mean it could not fund the project, we would lose credibility with other countries who are partners in Iter."
By Keith Nuthall
for World Nuclear News