The ITER Agreement--Four Decades for Me and Counting

By Michael Roberts

The agreement that was recently signed by seven major scientific powers to construct ITER (formerly known as the International Thermonuclear Engineering Reactor) represents a milestone in international scientific collaboration. More than an agreement to build a multibillion dollar scientific facility, this accomplishment represents a joint statement on how these seven Parties, representing half the world’s population, can work together toward a common, major, and long-term scientific goal.

ITER is a joint international research and development project that aims to demonstrate the scientific and technical feasibility of fusion power. The partners in the project–the ITER Parties–are the European Union (represented by EURATOM), Japan, the People´s Republic of China, India, the Republic of Korea, the Russian Federation and the USA. ITER will be constructed in Europe, at Cadarache in the South of France. For more information, please see

It has been a long time coming.  In 1968, I was one of 60 US fusion scientists who joined hundreds of researchers from other nations at the first International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) fusion energy conference in the USSR in Academgorodok, near Novosibirsk. The tokamak magnetic confinement experiments–the basis for ITER–were first broadly discussed in an international forum there. In addition to the technical discussions, and despite the Cold War tensions, we got to know each other through personal interactions, e.g., playing frisbee, exchanging token gifts. I believe these interactions led to successful bilateral fusion activities arising from the 1973 Nixon-Brezhnev Atomic Energy agreement.

During the 1970/80s, frequent broadly based informal interactions between U.S. fusion scientists and their European Community counterparts built a straightforward working trust between many of us on both sides. In November, 1979, now representing the US Department of Energy, I sat down for the first time in a bilateral program negotiation with my Japanese counterparts, trying to implement what President Carter and Prime Minister Fukuda had recently agreed should happen. In front of us was a first year plan of 29 research exchange visits, and both programs’ governmental and technical leaders expected us staffers to report back soon. We kept sending notes requesting more time and after EIGHT HOURS of argument brought in our recommendations for the first annual plan of activities. Two decades later, with the help of smooth running prior staff work, we would be able to approve plans of hundreds of complex interactions in literally one minute at formal meetings, leaving time for substantive discussion of program issues.Multilateral engagement in fusion intensified in 1982, when French President Mitterand led the Versailles Summit to adopt an initiative on Technology, Growth and Employment including a Fusion Working Group. I had the good fortune to participate in this activity that developed a Western world fusion plan in 1983-4. This in turn led to discussions with the USSR toward a world program plan for major facilities. By the time of the November, 1985 US-USSR Geneva Summit, Academician Evgeniy Velikhov had conceived of what has become ITER, an idea that was adopted by President Reagan and General Secretary Gorbachev and then presented to the European Community (EC) and Japan. When ITER was born, international fusion was based principally on collaboration among the EC, Japan, US and USSR. In the next decade, US fusion bilaterals developed with China and Korea led to working relationships with fusion programs in these countries. A bilateral arrangement with India, the last major fusion program state not in the international collaboration milieu, is just now being developed as a result of the meeting between President Bush and Prime Minister Singh in mid-2005. Nonetheless, there is a long history of personal US-India fusion relations; as the head of the Indian fusion program, I and other international colleagues worked together on the IAEA’s International Fusion Research Council and built personal friendships that facilitated India's involvement with ITER. With bilaterals with India now being developed (starting with the EU, US, and Korea), all the world’s major fusion programs are now interacting through ITER and, in part, through bilaterals as well. 

Strengthening these many bilateral programs was the multilateral International Energy Agency (IEA) fusion activity. In each of the bilaterals and in the IEA and IAEA fora, I was privileged to be the US Executive Secretary or US working level representative, providing a quarter-century of continuity for US international fusion collaboration. In these roles, I learned to listen, persuade, compromise and generally find ways to implement agreed policies. During these years, the underlying bilaterals and multilaterals have matured, and the scientific and administrative work on the ITER project has advanced. These activities enabled the building of trust among us representatives of the involved governmental authorities (the Parties to the ITER Agreement) and built a strong base for serious ITER negotiations conducted at the political and diplomatic level since 2001. While the early years of ITER (~1985-2000) could be said to have focused on the “What of ITER” (i.e., the scientific objectives, basis, approach and design), the formal governmental negotiations since 2001 have turned to the “How of ITER” (i.e., resources, governance, legal matters)–a shift of emphasis that has implications that go well beyond fusion research.

Those most directly interested in the “What of ITER” are fusion scientists, since the issues addressed are largely fusion technical ones. I believe the broader science community also has an interest both in ITER science and in the funding competition ITER represents. The “How of ITER,” on the other hand, directly affects government elements outside of the fusion program, and scientific communities outside of the fusion community, because it is applicable to large-scale scientific collaboration in general. Clearly, the ITER Agreement starts out with a purpose statement specifically directed at ITER, but virtually every other provision deals with How the Parties will interact with each other and the Director General as the project evolves. The ITER Agreement addresses issues such as governance, resources, and intellectual property rights, rather than plasma confinement, heating and diagnostics. These negotiations, recently formally concluded, involved the technical (Energy for US) and foreign (State for US) ministries of each of the Parties, including specialists from many sectors.  As a participant in these negotiations, privy to the many individual discussions and considerable time and human resources required that led to consensus on a myriad of difficult points, I believe it highly unlikely that any person or Party would seriously entertain trying to redo these compromises for the next large project. Therefore, I believe that the ITER Agreement, once signed and entered into force, should be a most useful document with lasting value as it will represent a significant body of governmental agreements on how to work together. This would then be available for use with only minor changes for future large-scale international scientific collaboration. I appreciate the opportunities given to me by my former employers, ORNL and DOE, and all my colleagues, at home and abroad, to participate in and contribute to these unparalleled experiments in international collaboration and welcome the next generations of researchers to build on these foundations of hard-won trust, continuity of service, and crucial support at highest political levels around the world.

Michael Roberts, recently retired from the Office of Fusion Energy Sciences, within the DOE Office of Science, was responsible for US international fusion programs from February 1979 through April 2006; he joined the ORNL Fusion program in 1966. He has served as Chair of the IEA Fusion Power Coordinating Committee and as Chair of the ITER Contact Persons. The views in this note are his alone and do not purport to represent those of the US DOE. 

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Editor: Alan Chodos
Contributing Editor: Jennifer Ouellette
Staff Writer: Ernie Tretkoff

February 2007 (Volume 16, Number 2)

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APS Commemorates Birth of the Transistor
APS Membership Sets a New Record in 2007
Serious Consequences Loom if FY07 Budget is Frozen
PhysicsQuest Kits are Back by Popular Demand
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Engineering Academy Seeks Grand Challenges
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