This year, we celebrated the 10th anniversary of a clean energy milestone - the creation of the ITER (international thermonuclear experimental reactor) project, one of the most complex scientific endeavours in human history.
However, this has not been a time for festivities, but rather an opportunity to pause and look back on this decade-long journey. It has been a time to reflect, take stock of progress and consider how the project can best deliver in the future, while also identifying the challenges ahead.
This is particularly the case for innovation. Science and technology require us to constantly question our actions, to ask ourselves if the roads we are pursuing the correct path and whether the results are those that we expected.
There is no doubt that ITER is a fascinating project that is shaping the future of energy. It aims to develop a new, safe and clean source of energy - nuclear fusion. The ITER project is frequently presented as the world’s largest puzzle and I believe that this is true in many aspects.
Energy consumption affects everyday life, whether at home, at work, on the road or on holiday. Energy has constantly influenced our lives since we harnessed the power of fire. Having a source of clean, carbon-free and sustainable energy is another part of the puzzle, one that is influencing the environment we live in as well as related social aspects.
EU investment into any innovative project such as ITER, however, will always be risky; after all, we cannot say with certainty that things will go the way we want them to. Still, it’s safe to say that ITER will never be a wasted investment. Despite some struggles in the project’s early years, we already have tangible achievements on the table and can prosper from its existence.
In fact, fusion energy is the only promising candidate we have, fulfilling all the dimensions of our energy union: it’s a climate-friendly, sustainable energy source that makes energy supplies more secure and affordable for our citizens, while supporting growth and job creation, thus increasing our economy’s competitiveness.
Participation in ITER brings multiple benefits and cross-cutting effects to European industry and research communities. Since its existence, the complexity and the multidisciplinary nature of the ITER project has produced several spin-offs, start-ups and spill-overs.
Some 300 companies, including SMEs from around 20 different EU member states and Switzerland, as well as some 60 research organisations, have benefited from this investment in ITER and contracts amounting to some €4bn are already in place.
The areas that have benefited from fusion research cover a variety of fields, ranging from medicine and material science to computing and astrophysics, including applications in engineering, diagnostics, superconducting technologies and medicine.
But we can always do better. Our task is to make sure that Europe is able to leverage ITER’s potential to the full extent, namely in the field of industry. We must do our best to keep our scientists and high-tech companies in the EU and not let them move elsewhere, where the financial aspects are favourable.
Therefore, I am happy that investments in research and innovation are over and above the EU agenda. Together, the Commission and the European Parliament are doing their best to find funding for further projects under the Horizon 2020 programme and this struggle is also reflected in ongoing talks about the next MFF.
However, ITER is more than EU contributions to the project. It has required the developing components that had never been manufactured before for the biggest-ever fusion device. It offers an unprecedented opportunity to industry, SMEs and fusion laboratories to get involved and contribute to the greatest international collaboration in the field of energy and beyond.
Thanks to this international participation, many European industries are establishing solid cross-border cooperation and participating in international markets; opening new business opportunities and synergies related to ITER activities and beyond.
Finally, with seven international partners, representing 85 per cent of the world’s GDP as well as half of the world’s population, the ITER international partnerships help facilitate the combination of resources and ultimately contribute to sharing scientific expertise and new know-how that is being created around the world with one ultimate aim, to deliver the best results.
Built on an idea of deep collaboration ITER, goes far beyond its primary objectives. I believe it is not only an innovative and timeless project, but also a peace project for Europe and for the entire world. Working altogether to pave a sustainable future for the next generations is what we need the most; now more than ever.