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PARIS (AP) — Bernard Bigot, a French scientist leading a vast international effort to demonstrate that nuclear fusion can be a viable source of energy, has died. He was 72 years old.

The organization behind the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, or ITER, said Bigot died Saturday of an unspecified illness. Director general of the organization since March 2015, Bigot was approaching the half of his second term, which was to end in 2025.

A statement from ITER described his death as “a tragic blow to the global fusion community”.

His deputy, Eisuke Tada, will head the ITER project while searching for Bigot’s successor.

Unlike existing fission reactors that produce radioactive waste and sometimes catastrophic meltdowns, proponents of fusion say it offers a clean, virtually unlimited supply of energy if scientists and engineers can harness it.

Members of the ITER project – China, the European Union, India, Japan, South Korea, Russia and the United States – are building a donut-shaped device called a tokamak in Saint-Paul-les- Durance in the south of France. It is billed as the biggest science project in the world. The goal is to trap hydrogen that has been heated to 150 million degrees Celsius (270 million Fahrenheit) for long enough to allow the atoms to fuse together.

The process results in the release of large amounts of heat. Although ITER does not produce electricity, scientists hope it will demonstrate that such a fusion reactor can produce more energy than it consumes.

ITER is now over 75% complete and scientists aim to start the reactor by early 2026.

The Associated Press