ITER is the new, shining star on the Aiken-Augusta horizon, the latest nuclear promise for a jobs-hungry community.
If built at Savannah River Site, the 100-foot tall fusion reactor would catapult this Southern river valley into a sophisticated, high-tech 21st century, proponents say.
"We're talking about a major scientific international hub," said Ben Cross, program manager for Westinghouse Savannah River Co.'s fusion and ITER programs. "A major economic opportunity."
Beyond that, ITER would help the United States recapture its scientific edge and hopefully secure an environmentally friendly energy source for future generations, advocates say.
The United States, the Russian Federation, the European Union and Japan have agreed to jointly fund the $20 billion International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor somewhere in the world. The purpose of this ambitious international effort is to determine if fusion - the combining of atoms - can generate enough energy to meet the world's growing demand for electricity.
Construction of ITER would begin in 2000, two years after a site is selected.
Community leaders on both sides of the Savannah River are confident SRS can compete successfully against four other nations - Japan, Canada, Italy and Sweden - that have expressed an interest in hosting the reactor.
But N. "Buck" Jordan of Waxachie, Texas, has some advice for folks in the area: Don't pin your hopes on a large government research project unless it's funded up-front.
Take a look at what happened to his hometown.
A 15-mile, sealed-up tunnel, dozens of empty homes and some pretty disappointed people remain in Waxahachie, population 19,500, after the Department of Energy's much-touted superconducting supercollider was killed by Congress three years ago. By then, taxpayers had sunk $2 billion into the underground atom-smasher near Dallas.
"It's been a real mess," Mr. Jordan, president of the Waxachie Chamber of Commerce, concluded in a telephone interview. "We didn't get killed, but it's had a tremendous impact."
As Aiken-Augusta gears up to get ITER built at SRS, the community will use the demise of the supercollider as a lesson, promised Fred Davison, chairman of the Savannah River Regional Diversification Initiative's ITER committee.
"We're hitting all those issues up front," he said. "The supercollider wasn't done right. There's going to have to be a (financial) obligation on the part of the United States and the other players."
For American taxpayers, ITER would translate into an $8 billion commitment over 30 years if built in the U.S.
Convincing a frugal Congress to invest hundreds of millions of dollars annually in another major energy research project will be hard, most proponents acknowledge.
"I think it's a great idea, but realistically, I think it's going to be a tough sell," said Rep. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., whose district includes SRS.
The Energy Department has said it's not trying to get ITER built in the U.S. Funding for the agency's fusion programs has dwindled in the past year to the point where the nation isn't even meeting its full international commitment for ITER research and design, Mr. Cross said.
At $55 million, America's ITER budget is just below what the impoverished Russian Federation spends. Japan and the European Community both invest significantly more.
ITER, government spending watchdog groups say, looks like a pie in the sky.
"Short of turning the project into an entitlement, it couldn't be done," said Susan Tanaka of the Washington-based Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. "There's no way the U.S. would sign an agreement under which it would have to commit to 30 years of funding."
No matter who controls Congress, "I think the budget is going to be tight for many years to come," said Bill Magavern of Public Citizen, a consumer group opposed to nuclear energy. "A project of this magnitude just isn't likely."
Aiken-Augusta leaders ignore such naysayers. With Congress returning to normal after the elections, they're getting ready to lobby key legislators about their pet project.
A colorful flyer produced by Westinghouse, the SRS contractor, promises 6,000 construction jobs, 900 permanent staff and countless spin-off industries if ITER were built in South Carolina.
"You're going to have to have an international school, the grocery stores would have to import foods and spices for the people who are coming to work here, there would be economic opportunities," Mr. Cross mused. "And some people might consider it far-fetched, but we believe it could become a major tourist attraction as well."
The challenge, of course, will be to convince Capitol Hill that ITER is about vital science and not pork.
"The big picture here is the scientific advancement of the United States," insisted Charles DeVaney of Augusta Tomorrow. "We can't stop making long-term commitments just because we're trying to balance the budget."
A community meeting on the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor will be held at 5:30 p.m. today at the Aiken Technical College amphitheater. It's sponsored by several economic development groups on both sides of the river to let the community become more familiar with the project. Charles Baker, leader of the ITER U.S. home team, will attend.
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