Posted on: 22nd April 2013

Ten years ago a historic treaty was signed which would bring large changes to Europe’s fusion program. The Treaty of Accession, signed on April 16, 2003, led to ten new countries joining the European Union, and therefore joining EFDA, via the EURATOM treaty. The addition of Cyprus, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia constituted the largest single addition of territory and population to the European Union. The addition of so many former Eastern Bloc countries, along with Bulgaria and Romania who joined four years later, has had a major impact on EFDA in the subsequent ten years.

Not all the countries waited for the treaty, however. For example Romania’s fusion scientists had already been collaborating with its western European colleagues for a long time and joined the new EFDA shortly after it formed in 1999, tells Romanian physicist, Vasile (Liviu) Zoita.

“Joining EFDA changed Romanian fusion research a lot – it gave it a recognised purpose. Until then we had to work like mad to get funding for what was considered over there as very nice basic research. Now there were open questions to be answered at the level of the European fusion programme, we could address those questions and thus we now had a clear purpose for our fusion research. You could never build a fusion reactor in Romania, but you could engage successfully in a project like the JET ITER-Like Wall.”

The seed money that came with participation in an EU programme was also vital, says Liviu Zoita. “Once the Commission gives you 20% funding for your proposal, the Government will give you the other 80%, sometimes even more,” he says. “But, without it, nothing.”

Other Accession countries, such as the Czech Republic, also had mature fusion research programmes which could be integrated readily and expanded successfully within the EU fusion programme, says Dr Michael Watkins, who was involved in bringing new countries into the EFDA-JET programme. In particular, he was strongly involved in stimulating Polish interest in JET: “Right from the outset, it was clear that to utilise their high level of technical expertise to the full benefit of the European fusion programme required a long-term vision and strong commitment on their side; the size of the necessary change required could not be underestimated.”

The intervening years have shown that such vision and commitment were there in abundance. For example, the Institute of Plasma Physics and Laser Microfusion (one of twelve institutes in Poland that now make a coordinated contribution to the EU fusion programme) has shifted its focus from dense plasmas towards larger, less dense magnetically confined experiments. “They now make major contributions to Wendelstein 7-X, JET and other European tokamaks, with activities ranging from construction and enhancements to operation and experimental research,” says Dr Watkins.

The addition of the new labs has been important says Liviu Zoita: “These small labs can provide a really substantive contribution, because they have expertise that is not found anywhere else.” His home association, the Fusion Research Unit within Romania’s Ministry of Education and Research, was vital in the development of the technology for coating JET’s carbon-fibre divertor tiles with tungsten – earning a letter of thanks from the European Commision for their timely contribution.

Ten years on a similar transition is happening as the fusion programmes from the seven ITER nations come together to build a shared purpose – experience tells us that, although there may be challenges to overcome during this transition, the parts will sum to make a greater whole.