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Ottawa didn't kill a Canadian bid to land an important and potentially lucrative international energy project near Toronto: The federal cabinet never got around to making a decision at all.

The project, an experimental thermonuclear reactor, would attempt a breakthrough in fusion energy that proponents say could lead to dramatic gains for the global environment and economic bounty for the host country.

The site is expected to cost about $17-billion over 30 years, and Canada would have had to cover about $4.6-billion of the bill. The Ontario government had agreed to pick up half that cost.

The federal cabinet discussed the matter at least twice in recent months, but never decided whether to participate in financing an international thermonuclear experimental reactor (ITER) in Canada. Multinational negotiations over where to build it started in November, 2001.

A body with members from industry, government and universities had launched an effort to make Clarington, Ont., the home of ITER. "I think it's an unbelievable missed opportunity," said Dr. Murray Stewart, chief executive officer of ITER Canada, the group that made the bid, which was withdrawn from competition last week. "We blew this."

Proponents say the Clarington site, adjacent to the Darlington nuclear generating station near Toronto, would have been the clear front-runner because of inherent advantages over the competing bids of France and Japan: easy access to tritium, a key fuel for the project and a byproduct of the adjacent reactor; access to a deep-sea-grade dock; a multicultural community for the foreign scientists; nearby universities, and the absence of seismic danger.

They say the project would have meant hundreds of construction jobs, lured about 300 top international scientists to Canada and created a world-class cluster in a growing field. "It's a story made in heaven," said Frank Potter, who advised the Ontario government.

The new project aims to be the first fusion device to produce a burning plasma while operating at extremely high power for sustained periods, testing key components that might later make commercial fusion power possible.

A Liberal MP who represents a riding near Clarington said there are still big questions about the viability of fusion and noted, "It hasn't been proven that it will work."

Proponents say the proposal never caught fire or attracted a powerful champion in Ottawa despite emphasis in recent years on innovation and world-leading research. They take some of the blame, but accuse the government of being short-sighted and small-minded.

A federal government spokesman says a decision has not been made and the file is still open.

But those involved in preparing a Canadian bid say it's too late; they officially withdrew their tentative proposal at a meeting in Vienna last week due to lack of federal support.