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Also as usual at this time of year forest fires have broken out and armies of firemen and waterbombers are tirelessly attacking the wind–driven blazes, while gendarmes search for the usual firebugs. Some homeowners have pitched in too with puny garden hoses, trying to save their houses while many women and children were evacuated to safety.

The good weather news is for holiday makers rather than Parisians who are staying behind, even though the summer sales continue to offer deep discounts. The weekend was expected to be cool and partly cloudy in the city while the sun blazed through azure skies over the Riviera, driving the temperatures up to 29–32 degrees for the joy of all who can afford to be there.

Fusion Bonanza Snagged

Last Wednesday 40 mayors gathered in the small town of Vinon–sur–Verdon down south in Provence to knock the tops off a lot of Champagne bottles, and toast the decision that will bring the world's next experimental fusion reactor to their area. The mayors were part of a group of 95, who don't want their communes to go empty handed.

In this area of France, at the intersection of four departments known more for their climate between mountainsphoto, pastisserie, rue harpe and Mediterranean so prized by the filthy and not–so–filthy rich owners of authentic 'maisons de Provence,' the mayors also have to be concerned that this paradise isn't going to turn into a development slum or a nuclear crater.

North African goodie shop in the Quartier Latin.

At a meeting in Moscow on Tuesday the representatives of an international consortium gave the green light to Cadarache, near Vinon–sur–Verdon, to be the location of an experimental reactor that may allow scientists to prove the feasibility of nuclear fusion, which is how the sun operates. This is known as the ITER project.

The partners include the United States, China, Japan, Russia and South Korea. Japan, also a favorite in the competition as a location for the site, accepted the runner–up role of building an affiliated research project worth a billion euros, to be financed by the European Union. For ITER, France will put up 10 percent of the required 10 billion euro investment and the European Union's share will be 40 percent with the others kicking in 10 percent each.

Current fission nuclear reactors create energy by breaking large atoms in two. Fusion operates inversely, melding light atoms to give birth to heavy clusters. Thermonuclear does this too but is not controlled, unless you consider explosions to be tidy.

The benefit of fusion is supposed to be a generation of much more energy using less fuel than fission, while producing less radioactive waste.

It's part of a long process that began in 1997 in Britain with the Tokamak JET reactor. It produced 16 megawatts for a whole second, but required 23 megawatts of power to do it. In 2002 the improved Tokamak Tore Supra with superconducting magnets, located at Cadarache, produced a lot of energy over a longer period – for exactly four minutes and 25 seconds.

While the mayors are contemplating the expenditure of a five billion euros for the new ITER plant at Cadarache, they are drinking Champagne with the idea of 6000 new jobs landing in the area. They intend to defend the 'way of life' in the area's small towns, by not welcoming real estate speculators. Vinon's population increased from 800 to 4500 when the Cadarache center was created.

In fact Cadarache has been chosen partly because it has been allied to nuclear science for 40 years. Detailed studies for ITER began in 2001. On the 1600 hectare site there are currently 18 nuclear plants and 4000 workers, many high–tech.

Although close to the Riviera, Greenpeace doesn't see so much sunshine in the scenario. Back in 2001 thephoto, my empty plate environmental watchdog organization claimed that a third of the nuclear installations at Cadarache might not withstand a major earthquake. A nuclear security agency said replacements should be programmed before 2015.

Apparently the operator, Areva, took it seriously, because the production of MOX fuel was shifted from Cadarache to the Melox factory at Chusclan. That was the plan at any case. In the fall of 2002 the ecology minister was reported to be asking the Prefect of the Gard to conduct a public enquiry about increasing the capacity at the Melox factory.

The vision of cheap and clean energy is a goal worth saluting. Today nuclear is the method of choice for generating most of France's electricity, but with the way the climate seems to be going, the immense amount of water necessary to cool the reactors is in doubt because of the threat of summer droughts.

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