• Stephan Raab

A fusion for the future - EU science diplomacy as soft power at ITER


Photo credit: https://unsplash.com/s/photos/international-thermonuclear-experimental-reactor


Dealing with the rising demand for energy worldwide, finding new paths for more sustainable energy production will be central to a climate-friendly future. However, finding a consensus on what kind of energy source might be considered “sustainable” has led to several controversies, reconsidering the use of nuclear energy as a tool for a green transition. Many critics appeal to the risky side effects of nuclear catastrophes thinking about the impacts of disasters such as Chernobyl or Fukushima. In contrast to that, the international and interdisciplinary project International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), promises an overabundance of energy supply by putting the promises of nuclear fusion into practice. Implementing such a megaproject involves several actors such as China, the United States of America, the Russian Federation, and the European Union.


This contribution will discuss the role of EU science diplomacy as a tool of European soft power in setting common standards. Its first part will explain the core ideas of science diplomacy and its role in policy learning. The second part will elaborate on the functions of nuclear fusion, borrowing certain aspects from physics. In the third part, both aspects will be merged together, reflecting how the European Union could make use of its scientific knowledge as soft power for setting common and global standards. Eventually, this contribution will conclude with an outlook of how the European Union could position itself as agenda-setter for measures against climate change.


Knowing what to decide or decide what to know - Introduction to science diplomacy

In 2015, the General Assembly of the United Nations agreed on the Agenda 2030, as a “blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all" (Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. United Nations, 2015). Showing its commitment to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), the European Union has approved the taxonomy regulation for establishing: “the criteria for determining whether an economic activity qualifies as environmentally sustainable for the purposes of establishing the degree to which an investment is environmentally sustainable”. (REGULATION (EU) 2020/852 OF THE EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT AND OF THE COUNCIL of 18 June 2020 on the establishment of a framework to facilitate sustainable investment, and amending. European Commission, 2020). In that context, nuclear energy might be defined as an environmentally sustainable technology.


But who is authorized to decide, what has to be defined as sustainable as what does not?


Applying the concept of science diplomacy converges two worlds. On the one side, the task of science is to create knowledge (knowing). On the other side, politics are in charge of making decisions based upon science (deciding)(Maasen and Weingart, 2005, p. 7). Both domains depend on each other, as the globally interconnected world of the 21st century is confronted with what former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan coined “problems without passport” (Annan, 2009). Challenges such as climate change transcend the national borders, requiring common efforts and measures taken by all states globally to solve those challenges. “Diplomats need to be guided by science to deal with the pressing issues of the day (science for diplomacy); the way for science often needs to be leavened by diplomats (diplomacy for science); and sometimes diplomats can use science for other ends (science in diplomacy)”. (Davis and Pattman, 2015, p. 262). Three different types of science diplomacy can be defined, mutually assigning different roles to diplomats or scientists (van Langenhove, 2016, 18f.).


Diplomacy for science focuses on facilitating the collaboration of international scientific communities, such as for instance the renowned Club of Rome, famous for its report “The limits of growth” published in 1972. The goal is to establish and foster cooperation at a governmental or institutional level to improve the national scientific and innovative capacities. Those might be for instance Future Earth, launched after the Rio+20 summit, for bringing science and technology together in order to promote exchange on more sustainable ways of globalisation.


Science in Diplomacy reverses the concept. Here scientists are prompted toward supporting foreign policy. In times of war, their role consists in mobilising national scientific and technological resources to develop military power. In times of peace, scientists shall acquire new scientific knowledge to be used as an argument for taking decisions in foreign policy. Such a narrative could be found for instance in nuclear energy as a tool for peaceful energy supply.


Science for diplomacy combines politics and science as a tool to build bridges and improve relations between states. Here, science serves as soft power to overcome tensions by focussing on common problems. A famous example for such an approach can be found in space policy, considering how the collaboration between the European Union and the Soviet Union in discovering outer space made the iron curtain a little bit more permeable (Harvey, 2021, p. 4). Another example is the ITER project, which will be discussed later on in this contribution.

Nevertheless, despite the fact that science and diplomacy keep on crossing paths more often, both domains come from different approaches and paradigms as the next section will show.


Setting the Agenda - The roles of science and politics in policy learning


Foremost the blurring boundaries between science and politics during the Covid pandemic revealed that both domains are built on two different paradigms. As emphasized by the historian Yuval Harari, science is about finding the truth, meanwhile, politics is about finding legitimacy (Harari, 2020), whatever might be understood by those concepts, is left open here. Science is searching for evidence-based forms of knowledge, claiming the possibility to prove those findings either true or false. In that sense, due to its criteria of objectivity, science is considered a universal language. Conversely, politics or diplomacy are determined by dialogue, negotiation as a search for a compromise among stakeholders (Turekian, 2015, p. 4).


Having elaborated on the convergences and divergences between both domains, scientists and politicians provide different capabilities to influence a certain policy field as its settings. Those policy fields are evolving and changing, just like the environment around them. Taking for instance the case of climate policy, sustainable technologies change or new global actors such as the Fridays for Future movement emerge, together with often unexpected events such as Fukushima keep on changing the environment to be dealt with in the respective policy field. Actors dealing with those complexities are required to learn, what is defined as updating of beliefs at its most general level” (Dunlop and Radelli, 2013, p. 600). Learning requires the curriculum to be set, as the educational outcomes, that shall be achieved during this process. Every policy field contains a certain degree of uncertainty (problem tractability) as a certain reputation or legitimacy ascribed to the actors for setting means and goals of policy learning. Depending on the status ascribed, scientists have various ways to influence the learning effects.


Figure 1 - Modes of Policy Learning (Dunlop/Radelli 2013, p. 602)


Regarding the mode of epistemic learning, there is a low degree of uncertainty, yet the legitimacy ascribed to the actors involved is considered very high. Consequently, the lowest influence is given as contributors, where experts are just one actor among many others. As facilitators, those might facilitate the learning process, meanwhile in the role of teachers, scientists as experts serve as a kind of teacher, defining what the curriculum should be for policy learning. The highest influence is given by the role as producer of standards, which serves as a kind of technocracy, where experts define the goals and politics the means how to reach them (ibid. p.608ff.). However, this mode of learning has not been observed very often.


Figure 2 - Epistemic Learning Mode (Dunlop/Radelli 2013, p.609)


Diplomacy, Science, and the ITER Dream of endless energy


Having established the theoretical foundations of science diplomacy, this part will discuss the practical application of this concept along with the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor project, or ITER for short. Based upon theories of nuclear physics this procedure stands in opposition to the traditional way of using nuclear fission in nuclear power plants. Conversely, rather than splitting atoms, the core idea of nuclear fusion consists in fusing two atoms to create an overabundance of energy. This principle can be found within stars, using high energy and pressure to create their tremendous amounts of energy. Put in simple terms, the goal of the ITER project is to rebuild extremely hot stars on earth as a power plant for energy supply.


Figure 3 - Difference between nuclear fission and nuclear fusion retrieved from Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/summary/nuclear-fission


For that purpose, the elements deuterium and tritium are heated to extreme heat, where electrons start to dissolve from the nuclei of the atoms. Due to the high speed of the protons, those merge together, creating helium. The energy released will be used to heat turbines for creating energy. During this process less radioactive waste shall be produced, avoiding the risk of a nuclear accident, meanwhile ensuring a reliable and sustainable long-term source for energy supply.


Implementing such a project requires the complementary efforts of many states. Nowadays, it covers the USA, Russia, the European Union, Japan, China, South Korea, and India. ITER gathers around half of the whole world population, or in the term of Berkeley physicist Kenneth Fowley: “ The sun never sets on ITER” (McCray, 2010, p. 283). This was seconded by Hubert Curien, former president of the Organization Européenne pour la Recherche Nucléaire (CERN), describing ITER as' ‘globalisation with hardware” (ibid.p.284). From the first ideas in the 1970s upon the factual establishment in 2005, the story of this project can be structured into three or respectively four chapters, starting with the times of the cold war, leading to the stalemate during the early post-cold war times up to the current perspectives and their futures. During the trajectory of ITER as the most expensive science experiment on earth”(Clery and Normile, 2005, p. 934), the European Union took a leading role here.


Since the early days, research on the use of nuclear energy had a highly political dimension, considering the US Manhattan project aimed to develop the first atomic bomb. After the second world war, initiatives like the “Atoms for Peace” initiated by Eisenhower in 1958 can be described as the first tools of science in diplomacy. Prior to that, research was restricted due to the military use of nuclear research. Here, starting the first phase of the way to nuclear fusion, especially the competing rival powers the USA and the Soviet Union started to take a lead. Simultaneously the European Union, still in its process of being founded, slowly began to catch up. In 1958 EURATOM as the European Centre for research on nuclear energy was established. During that time, the just setting European Union was in the process of catching up. Founding Euratom as part of the Treaty of Rome, the concept of nuclear fusion was mentioned, yet the focus was mostly put on nuclear fission for industrial purposes (McCray, 2010, p. 283). Slowly evolving until 1968 most of the European countries pursued their own national strategies, when suddenly in 1968 the Soviet Union managed to present their “Tokamak” as the first prototype of nuclear fusion. Now, European leaders have become aware of their joint capacities. From that moment, and especially promoted by EURATOM president Donato Palumbo, the European scientific community was fostered, with the European Commission taking the lead in the research for nuclear fusion. In the 1970s the first prototype of a nuclear fusion reactor called Joint European Torus (JET) was built. From that point, the quest for nuclear fusion turned into a common quest of the European science community contributing to the European integration process. Despite the increasing awareness of joint efforts, disputes remained about the location, keeping the project further stalled until the 1980s. Other factors were the unstable relations between the USA and the Soviet Union and the geopolitical turbulence (ibid.p.290).


The 1980s can be considered the heyday of fusion science diplomacy. Initiated by the French president Francois Mitterrand, the goal was to promote exchange on technology. Here science diplomacy opened a new window of opportunity. First plans for the ITER project were set, when Reagan and Gorbachev met each other in Geneva in 1985. All partners involved could rely on an established network of international scientific exchange (diplomacy for science). Furthermore, the project promised societal benefits of finding alternative sources of energy, considering the evolving environmental movement (science in diplomacy). Eventually, as a fast breakthrough was not supposed to be seen, both the USA and the Soviet Union considered the risk very low of sharing technology. Meanwhile Palumbo, as a leading figure of European nuclear fusion, emphasized that the European Union should be perceived as a single entity maintaining its independence. The experienced science diplomat was conscious of the unstable politics of the cold war. After that plans were conceived for the implementation of such a nuclear reactor. However, the political transformations in the Soviet Union as the lengthy process left Europe and Japan as only actors (ibid. p.293f.).

Here, the third phase was about to start, foremost starting with a dispute. On the European side, this chapter started with a dispute between France and Spain about the location of ITER. Meanwhile, France presented itself as well experienced in nuclear research, Spain emerged as a rather new scientific actor, represented by the rising budget for research and the booming economy. Eventually, a compromise could be reached, with Cadarache in France being chosen as a location for the facility and Barcelona in Spain taken as headquarter of the project. Now it was still between Europe and Japan to decide about the location. A special privilege was conceded to Japan. 20% of the industrial contracts, especially regarding high-tech components should be given to Japan, while only paying 10% of the project's costs (ibid.p.296ff.). With the decision for Cadarache, a quest for a location found an end after a search of more than 25 years. This achievement prompted the USA to return to the project, getting aware of the promises of fusion as an alternative source of energy. Other actors such as China, India, and South Korea joined in 2010 as a symbol of national prestige and modernisation (ibid.p.300f.). However, what is most striking about this science diplomacy approach, that the European Union emphasized, in case of any failure, Europe would still pursue the project if needed on its own. This shows the power of the European integration process when all member states are willing to speak as one actor.


European Union as a producer of standards


In his research about the trajectory of ITER, McCray argues that the USA was following a rather unstable and skittish approach to the project. Only the European Union seemed to have served as a backbone, ensuring the willingness to keep this experiment running, setting the long-term goals (McCray, 2010, p. 283). During the launch of the machine assembly in Cadarache in July 2020, all heads of state of the countries involved mentioned the importance of the project as an opportunity for cooperation among the global community (Carayannis and Draper, 2021).


During the cold war, the USA and the Soviet Union were searching for an opportunity to overcome their strained relations, which was found in research (fusion science for diplomacy). Simultaneously, such a project required a multilateral effort only made possible by the backing of political actors, who were willing to overcome their barriers. “ITER is the epitome of three-dimensional science diplomacy” (Barbarino, 2021, p. 2). On the one side, there is the scientific expertise (knowing), yet there is also the political willingness (deciding), to put such a megaproject into practice. Both domains depend on each other to shape this policy field. Referring back to the previous chapter, policy learning becomes literally visible in Cadarache.


The ITER project can be considered a technological zone. “Technological zone can be understood as a structuring of relations, which has a normative force, but one which does not necessarily take a disciplinary form (Barry, 2006, p. 241). Building upon the history of scientific standardisation, first there were meteorological zones, using similar units such as the metric system. After that, infrastructural zones arrived such as railroads or telecommunication. Those zones require compatible standards to be connected with each other. Eventually, now zones of qualification are about to rise. Here certain features and qualities of objects and prac