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Bush to fund fusion energy machine

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At present, nuclear reactors use fission to produce electricity. They generally split uranium atoms into subatomic parts, some of which hit the nuclei of other uranium atoms, which then split and release more subatomic parts. The process leads to a chain reaction that splits more and more atoms, which generates heat. That heat then is harnessed to make electricity.

Fusion is the opposite. It fuses rather than splits atomic nuclei. Fusion reactors would use unique types of hydrogen called deuterium and tritium, which can fuse to make helium, subatomic particles and energy. Fusion reactions have been produced in the lab, but large-scale fusion power has yet to be proven economically or technologically feasible. Humans, however, already rely on a giant natural fusion reactor for survival: the sun.

PRINCETON, New Jersey (CNN) -- The Bush administration will join an international consortium that plans to build a $5 billion fusion machine to produce power, the U.S. energy secretary announced Thursday.

The United States will be responsible for about 10 percent of the cost of the project, expected to begin construction in 2006. The other partners are China, Japan, the European Union, Russia and Canada.

The first machine to be built will be an experimental version. More research and development will be needed before scientists learn how to harness the fusion reactions.

Currently, nuclear reactors make energy through fission, harnessing the energy of splitting atomic parts to make electricity. They do not emit greenhouse gases like oil or coal power plants, but produce highly radioactive wastes.

In contrast, fusion reactors would generate power by fusing certain kinds of atoms to make heavier ones. They would produce little or no dangerous byproducts, but fusion technology will not be economically viable as a power source for decades or longer, critics contend.

Coming together

Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham made the announcement at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, one of the premiere fusion laboratories in the Unites States.

The Princeton lab is a Department of Energy unit that researches fusion but does not have the capability to produce energy on a large scale for commercial use.

The United States earlier was a partner in the conceptual designs for a fusion reactor, but pulled out of the project because of the expense.

The multinational group hopes to choose a site by mid-2003, selecting from locations in Japan, France, Spain and Canada.

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