András Siegler is one of the founding fathers of EUROfusion. Now that he is retiring as Director of Energy in the Directorate-General Research & Innovation of the European Commission he takes a look back on his achievements. The strong advocate for science compares fusion to going to the Moon: “We simply have to find out if it is possible”.

One of your first tasks in 2013 was to make the rather loose conformation of the European Fusion Development Agreement (EFDA) into an official consortium called EUROfusion…

This was not easy at all. EFDA had dealt with many individual contracts with the fusion labs. The labs needed to be moulded into a coherent and efficient consortium. Hence, the entire paradigm of the old programme changed. This major transformation task was waiting on my desk when I arrived. Although the scientific goal, the European fusion roadmap, had already been finalised in 2012, we still needed to set up the largest and most comprehensive single scientific programme in Europe. It was one of the most exciting things my team and I had to accomplish.

What was the hardest part?

First and foremost it was the act of convincing the Member States. Some were quicker than others to realise the benefits. As you can imagine, in order to establish the consortium many nuts and bolts needed to be put in place. The devil is in the detail. The Research Units also had to agree on the new co-funding scheme whereby the Commission contributes 55% and the research institutes the rest. What was, and still is, very important is that small and large laboratories alike have found their place. This has given them increased scope for research with the added responsibility of managing the implementation of the roadmap. During the transition, it was our job to ensure that nobody was left behind and that all were able to contribute.

Almost three years after its start what do you think of EUROfusion now?

I am really proud. There is no other comparable large and coherent single scientific programme in Europe. EUROfusion is the archetype of co-funded schemes. It is a true all-European endeavour, the European Research Area at work.

Do you think that fusion research has already made an impact?

I think the organisation of European fusion research has been a huge success and is a model envied by other global actors. Our scientists have been increasingly filing for patents and have found well referenced solutions. It was a great pleasure to work in this field with such fantastic scientists who are not afraid to go looking for answers. If they needed to change, they changed. For example, in terms of the plasma facing materials, initially carbon was used inside the fusion experiments, now it is beryllium and tungsten. Of course, it’s easy to present the result but it’s another thing to make such decisions. I dearly cherish this commitment.

Still, the UK vote to leave the European Union has now put the Joint European Torus (JET) at risk.

I would like to put the minds of people at JET at ease. The UK government is committed to continue with the work and to honour their obligations independently of the outcome of the Brexit negotiations. Although nobody can anticipate the results of the talks between the UK and the European Commission, we will propose that JET remains part of the programme until 2020, at least.

What do you personally think of fusion energy and its future prospects?

I compare it to big scientific projects like flying to the Moon, the Apollo Programme or CERN, in the sense that we strive for new knowledge which sometimes means we have to take risks. We want to know whether we will be able to use fusion energy tactically. Nobody on Earth can possibly know what the economic situation in 2040 or 2050 will be, and we also cannot know whether we will have enough affordable energy without fusion. It is a safety belt to handle the demand for energy. And this is why we need to know whether it works.

Do you think that fusion research is sufficiently well communicated?

András Siegler. Picture: © Copyright protected by UKAEA

András Siegler. Picture: © Copyright protected by UKAEA

Good communication is fundamental and more of it should be done. Maybe Euratom, which deals with both fission and fusion, is not at the forefront here. The word nuclear is still a cause of concern for laymen. People do not distinguish between fission and fusion, and the risks attributed to fission are not inherent to fusion. We have to acknowledge that half of the countries of the EU support fission and half do not. So, the European Commission, when supporting fission research, should consider this and concentrate on nuclear safety. On the other hand, more explanation and presentation of fusion and its clear distinction from fission is required. In this respect, I have to say that the ITER Organization in Cadarache and Fusion for Energy [ITER’s European Domestic Agency] in Barcelona are doing a lot for this.

There is another topic to talk about: Spin-offs, results of fusion research which have already served other fields.

It has been very close to my heart to convince the involved companies around the world to share their fusion outcome with other fields, such as the medical industry with MRI, and other research communities with NMR spectroscopy, to give two good examples of superconductor technology transfer. There must surely be more. If I am not fully satisfied with something during my period, it is that we did not identify more spin-offs. I am convinced that fusion experiments do pay-off sooner than expected and the programme should catalogue the evidence to support this conviction.

András Siegler served as the Director of the European Commission in charge of research and innovation in energy (non-nuclear and nuclear) up until the end of June this year. He graduated in control engineering and holds a doctoral degree in mechanical engineering and a postgraduate degree in economics.
He started his career as a research engineer in mechatronics and computer aided design and has held various senior positions. Between 1996 and 2004, he was in charge of the Hungarian policy, legislation and fund management for research including the use of EU funds for boosting R&I.
Before joining the Commission in 2005, he represented Hungary in the research policy bodies of the EU, NATO, OECD and CERN.