A government meeting adopted Thursday the main provisions of a draft strategy for developing a fusion power industry up to 2015 and beyond, and instructed the Federal Agency for Nuclear Power to prepare a revised version of the document by October 1.
The strategy stipulates the allocation of 515 billion rubles (about $20 billion) for the development of a fusion power industry, including construction of commercial thermonuclear reactors, until 2050.
"If we fail to adopt this [fusion research] program now, we will soon lose the existing scientific potential and professional cadre [to implement the strategy]," academician Yevgeny Velikhov told journalists late on Wednesday, on the eve of the government meeting.
He said the 2009-2015 program would become the first stage of the fusion power strategy and include the modernization of technological potential created during Soviet times, as well as training of scientific personnel.
The cost of the program is estimated at 30 billion rubles ($1.17 billion), but it could rise along with the implementation of specific projects, the scientist said.
The second stage of the proposed strategy, in 2016-2031, envisions the development and testing of materials to be used in future fusion power reactors.
During the third stage, which will start after 2031, Russia hopes to design and start building commercial fusion power plants, Velikhov said.
Scientists have dreamt of creating electric power by nuclear fusion for more than half a century, but have been held back by the enormous engineering complications involved, in particular the staggeringly high temperatures needed to sustain a fusion reaction, at millions of degrees Celsius. Thermonuclear reactions, in which hydrogen atoms fuse to form helium atoms, releasing vast quantities of energy, power the sun and other stars.
The abundance of hydrogen and the absence of greenhouse gases from the nuclear fusion process have prompted countries to increase investment in fusion research in recent years.
Under an agreement signed in Paris on November 21, 2006, Russia, South Korea, China, Japan, India, the European Union, and the United States pledged to fund the construction an experimental thermonuclear reactor in France, which is expected to conduct its first plasma operation in 2016.
The $10 billion project to build the reactor in Cadarache near Marseilles is designed to demonstrate the scientific and technological potential of nuclear fusion, amid concerns over growing energy demand and the impact on the global climate of burning conventional fossil fuels. The European Union will cover 40% of the costs and the other participants will contribute 10% each.
Velikhov said that after jointly building the fusion power reactor, each participant in the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor project (ITER) "will assume its own approach toward the commercial use of fusion power."
The Russian scientist reiterated that Russia must move fast in the development of fusion power, as global demand for energy may triple by 2030, and the country has set itself an ambitious goal of becoming a leader on the future fusion power market.
However, Velikhov also admitted he believed that despite the development of alternative energy sources, fossil fuels will still be in wide use for power generation at the end of this century.