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'Globalization with Hardware': ITER’s Fusion of Technology, Policy, and Politics


DOI: 10.1080/07341512.2010.523171

McCray, W Patrick. "‘Globalization with Hardware’: ITER’s Fusion of Technology, Policy, and Politics." History and Technology 26.4 (2010): 283–312. Print.

p.284: This article explores the history of the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), a fusion energy megaproject currently being built in southern France. It examines three main aspects of the project’s history, focusing largely on the European research community’s perspective. First, it explores how European scientists and science managers constructed a transnational research community around fusion energy after 1960 that was part of Europe’s larger technological integration. This article also expands Gabrielle Hecht’s concept of ‘technopolitics’ to the larger international dimension and explores how the political environment of the late Cold War and the post-9/11 era helped shape ITER’s history, sometimes in ways not entirely within researchers’ control. Finally, this essay considers ITER as a technological project that gradually became globalized. At various stages in the project’s 30-year history, we discover processes whereby national borders became less important while social, economic, legal and technological linkages created a shared social space for fusion research on an expanding scale. -- Highlighted may 4, 2014

p.284: The fusion reactor’s cost, managerial complexity and global scope of its partnership make it an example par excellence of what one French newspaper labeled ‘un investissement pharaonique,’ i.e. a technological project displaying the scale and perhaps the hubris of the world’s ancient wonders. -- Highlighted may 4, 2014

p.284: Although ITER’s completion is still years away, the origins of this megaproject can be traced back to the 1970s. They include the long-term strategy of European scientists to conduct fusion research and build new facilities in an orderly and coordinated fashion and Cold War superpower politics between the Soviet Union and the USA. -- Highlighted may 4, 2014

p.285: ITER’s history prior to 2005, when science managers and national leaders finally resolved a lengthy dispute over where to build the project, offers an opportunity to engage with several thematic questions and issues that have attracted considerable interest from scholars. -- Highlighted may 4, 2014

p.285: Transnational history originally meant the study of international nongovernmental organizations as legitimate political and historical actors. Over time, this term has broadened to include organizations, including those associated with technological projects, which have a role in governance but which are not traditional ‘state-centric’ actors. A transnational focus may also imply the participation of supranational organizations to which member governments have ceded some power and decision-making ability. Finally, as its prefix suggests, a transnational view toward the study of technology also considers the flow of technological artifacts and technical knowledge across national borders. -- Highlighted may 4, 2014

p.285: Like transnationalism, globalization is a concept that historians of technology are integrating into their research with growing frequency both as a theoretical tool and as an actor category. In some cases, this work has focused on ‘informational globalism,’ in which transnational networks for communication and data sharing are constructed. The creation of global research programs, such as the International Geophysical Year (begun 1957) or the World Climate Research Program (started 1980), in which professional or even amateur researchers participated, presents another facet of globalized technology and science. -- Highlighted may 4, 2014

p.285: At the same time, the European fusion community’s practices included the creation and movement of a ‘research ensemble’ – materials, theories, techniques, equipment, technical staff, and monies – across national borders and between various research laboratories. To this transnational flow, one can add an ideology, shared among leaders of the European fusion community, which placed a premium on unity, cooperation, and a coherent long-term strategy. -- Highlighted may 4, 2014

p.286: Decentering the nation-state in this narrative by shifting to a broader supranational and transnational perspective affords us a new perspective on the practice of ‘technopolitics.’ Defined as ‘designing or using technology to constitute, embody, or enact political goals,’ Gabrielle Hecht initially used the term to address the question of ‘what was French about the French nuclear program?’ -- Highlighted may 4, 2014

p.286: In her research, Hecht’s primary concern was the co-production of technology and national identity from 1945 to 1975 – the Les Trente Glorieuses – when France enacted massive technological changes to regain its international standing, autonomy, and national pride. -- Highlighted may 4, 2014

p.286: Besides allowing European scientists to compete with and sometimes surpass their US counterparts in nuclear physics, astronomy, and aerospace engineering, scientific and technological cooperation was ‘situated at the heart of the process of European economic and political integration.’ The history of ITER and its antecedents gives insights into how contingencies and rationales for international scientific collaborations shifted over time, sometimes in ways not entirely within researchers’ control. -- Highlighted may 4, 2014

p.287: Historians of technology have long acknowledged that technological artifacts embody all sorts of politics. It should not be surprising to find that, paraphrasing Clausewitz, fusion research in Europe and in its global context was often a continuation of politics by other means. -- Highlighted may 4, 2014

p.288: Military classification initially prevented the international exchange of scientific and technical information about fusion but these constraints began to loosen following the Eisenhower administration’s ‘Atoms for Peace’ initiative. -- Highlighted may 4, 2014

p.293: Keyworth’s emphasis on basic science conflicted with the underlying long-term European goal of developing fusion technologies for energy applications and eventual ‘industrial production and marketing.’ Not surprisingly, the idea of a collaborative state-sponsored effort to develop energy-related technologies for civilian use posed ideological problems for the market-oriented Reagan administration. It also raised the issue of intellectual property rights. If fusion research primarily had a science focus, intellectual property was likely to be less of an issue, but the Europeans’ expressed interest in the eventual commercialization of fusion energy made the question of intellectual property more salient. Even if fusion as an energy source was not realized swiftly, there were likely to be new ‘patents and inventions arising from a large international project’ in areas such as materials, nuclear technologies, and other industrial areas. -- Highlighted may 4, 2014

p.294: As an arena for Cold War superpower collaboration, fusion made sense for several reasons. For one thing, an international research community and pathways for information exchange already existed. Second, clean energy via nuclear fusion offered the semblance of broad societal benefits. It also had the potential to put a more positive face on nuclear applications at a time when the superpowers’ nuclear arsenals drew widespread global condemnation. Finally, while technically possible, practicable applications of fusion energy still remained many years off, making it a fairly safe arena for US–Soviet collaboration in terms of technology sharing. -- Highlighted may 4, 2014

p.294: When the Geneva summit concluded, Reagan and Gorbachev issued a joint statement which was pure technopolitics. To further superpower cooperation and perhaps ease global tensions, the two leaders endorsed ‘the potential importance of … utilizing controlled thermonuclear fusion’ and advocated ‘practicable development of international cooperation’ to achieve this. When Reagan briefed Congress on his summit trip, he identified international cooperation in fusion as one part ‘of a long-term effort to build a more stable relationship’ with the Soviets and the two leaders repeated their backing for an international fusion reactor at subsequent meetings. -- Highlighted may 4, 2014

p.296: However, even as engineers designed ITER, the original techno-political rationale for it – scientific cooperation between the USA and the Soviet Union – disappeared when the socialist state collapsed and the Cold War ended. -- Highlighted may 4, 2014

p.296: By 1998, a welter of concerns on the part of the US research community had emerged. These included ITER’s rising costs, claims that it would not achieve its technical goals, frustrations with the lengthy design process, and a political climate disinclined to allocate large amounts of money to support an international energy-related project. These resulted in the US dropping out of the ITER fusion project. -- Highlighted may 4, 2014

p.297: Japan, meanwhile, was so keen to host ITER that it offered to pay a substantial fraction of the project’s cost for the privilege. The choice, ITER’s director at the time said, had little to do with engineering and instead involved ‘financial, political, and social’ issues. -- Highlighted may 4, 2014

p.297: After years of centralized ‘high tech Colbertism’ based on grand, state-sponsored projects, the French government under President Jacques Chirac was starting to formulate a new policy which would support regional areas of technological innovation. In these ‘clusters of competitiveness’ (pôles de compétitivité) particular areas of technical excellence and expertise would be encouraged. Cadarache had hosted French nuclear-related research projects for decades and there was hope that ITER might foster a new pôle de compétitivité in Provence oriented toward renewable energy research just as the JET had catalyzed profitable technological spin-offs in the Oxford region. -- Highlighted may 4, 2014

p.303: Finally, I would like to revisit physicist Herbert Curien’s observation that ITER was ‘globalization with hardware.’ Curien made his observation at a 1995 workshop when ITER’s design studies were still underway and countries like India and China had yet to join the project. Yet, even at that relatively early stage in ITER’s history, it was a perceptive comment from a French scientist who had led international research organizations for much of his career. With the notable exception of international space projects, European scientists at the time imagined globalized research largely in terms of networks. Curien’s colleagues cited climate studies, oceanography, and polar research as examples of successful programs which have ‘no institutionalized organizational form in Europe.’ As Curien said, ‘We have some examples of global [network-oriented] programs but not that many with hardware.’ ITER differed from previous globalized research projects as a scientific community whose governments eventually represented half of the world’s population cooperated to build a specific research device. -- Highlighted may 4, 2014