SOME of the scientists and engineers who want to harness the nuclear fusion process that powers the stars are tackling a new challenge. They are fusing the efforts of several nations to design an advanced research reactor.
Last month, negotiators from the European Community, Japan, the Soviet Union, and the United States agreed on terms for the partnership.
The signature, this November, of a treaty embodying those terms will trigger a six-year, billion-dollar design program that is as much an experiment in international technical cooperation as in physics.
It also reflects an emerging maturity in this research field. Three decades of work have brought researchers to the point where they now see their way clear to igniting a self-sustaining fusion reaction - in essence, a miniature "star here on Earth.
They expect that, within a decade, they will have to begin thinking in detail about how to use this "star" in a practical electric power station.
The program to design an International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) aims to blueprint a facility that will produce the engineering data needed for this practical planning. Truly international
Alexander J. Glass of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Calif., who leads the US ITER home team, says designing such a facility internationally, with work sites in Japan, Europe, and the United States, "is complex."
Yet, he adds, the project has had the advantage of being truly international from its start four years ago. Unlike the "international" space station or "international" space telescope, this not a project conceived by one nation which then invited others to join it. The four partners shared equally in ITER's conception and will share equally in its work and cost.
Dr. Glass explains, "We have to reach decisions by consensus. We have to discuss matters until there is agreement." This may slow the program down. But, once consensus is reached, each partner has made a solid commitment to it, Glass adds.
Glass's Livermore colleague, David Baldwin, who led a US Department of Energy ITER concept review, notes that the partners are willing to accept the complexity of cooperation to cut costs. He explains that it costs more totally to design ITER this way.
But each nation individually pays less than if it tried to do the job alone. This is an important consideration for a facility that costs $1 billion to design and may cost $5 billion to build, according to a …