Reuters International

Iran's head of the country's Atomic Energy Organization, Ali Akbar Salehi speaks during a seminar at the Japan Institute of International Affairs in Tokyo, Japan, November 5, 2015. REUTERS/Yuya Shino

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By John Irish

PARIS (Reuters) - Iran is assessing whether to apply for associate membership of the ITER multi-national nuclear fusion project, its director said on Wednesday, just a year after Tehran struck a deal with six world powers to curb its own atomic programme.

The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) project, which was launched 10 years ago by Europe, United States, China, India, Japan, Russia and South Korea, aims to build the world's largest experimental reactor, or tokamak.

It would generate energy through nuclear fusion, rather than the fission process currently used in nuclear power stations around the world. Fusion could prove cleaner, safer and more efficient.

The head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, Ali Akbar Salehi, visited ITER's headquarters in southern France this month and Iranian media quoted officials as saying that there was a "general agreement" for cooperation on ITER.

But in an interview with Reuters, ITER Director General Bernard Bigot said the purpose of the visit had been just to understand the project.

"After that they told us they had a long-standing interest in fusion and they would like to consider how to join the ITER project, but clearly not as a full member," he said.

Full members provide experienced engineers and scientists and substantial financial contributions.

"They felt that full membership is not best for them, but consider association in some specific areas or fields where they can contribute. Now it's up to them to make up their mind," Bigot said.

DEAL OPENED DOOR

Any application would have to be approved unanimously by the seven full members and the process would take at least six months.

Iran is already studying the development of nuclear fusion and has smaller laboratory tokamak machines.

However, ITER would give it access to new technologies and help bring it into the international civil nuclear energy fold.

Tehran agreed a deal last July with six world powers - Britain, China, Germany, France, Russia and the United States - to curb its nuclear programme, after Western suspicions that its aims were military.

In one of the deal's annexes the powers, which are all ITER members, said Tehran should be encouraged to cooperate with the project. "The nuclear deal opened the door," Bigot said.

Unlike fission reactors, which produce energy by splitting the nuclei of atoms, ITER would generate power by combining them. It remains unclear whether the technology will work and become commercially viable.

Bigot, the former head of French nuclear agency CEA, said the reactor under construction in Cadarache should see the first test of its super-heated plasma by 2025.

He added that after a management and structural review last year the project was now more credible and on track to meet its deadlines.

The project was pushed back five years earlier this year, with the new delay expected to add 4 billion euros to the total previously estimated cost of 14 to 15 billion euros.

(Reporting by John Irish; editing by Andrew Roche)

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