Fusion Breakthrough

November 13, 1991

Success in producing usable energy from nuclear fusion is a Holy Grail that has mesmerized physicists since the Manhattan Project. Finally, after nearly 50 years of travail by researchers all over the world, scientists working on the Joint European Torus project at Oxfordshire, England, have something to crow about.

Their aggressive, multi-nation effort became the first ever to introduce tritium, a heavy isotope of hydrogen, to the controlled fusion reaction. The reward was impressive: almost 2 million watts of power, sustained for two seconds, a long period in nuclear terms. Earlier efforts led only to thousands of watts, for fractions of a second.

Americans working on hot fusion, notably those at Princeton University's Plasma Physics Laboratory, had planned to reach this level of power, a major marker on the way to practical fusion, long ago. What intervened was a lag in funding. During the 1980s, the United States cut back its funding for hydrogen fusion research in a number of decisions culminating in the scrapping of a long-planned Compact Ignition Tokamak, or Burning Plasma experiment. The $1-billion-plus cost of building this reactor, with its associated electromagnets, costly electric power bill and complex construction, could not be sustained in a recessionary fiscal climate growing steadily worse.

Europeans, proceeding with a new confidence and assured funding from a coalition racing to catch and exceed the Americans, put new funds into Jet, with predictable results. In 1988, the National Research Council reported that the United States had "lost its leadership position" in magnetic fusion. In 1991, with the addition of tritium to the deuterium-hydrogen mix used earlier, the Europeans have forged ahead.

That's good for science, to be sure. The more nations interested enough to fund basic research into the frontiers of science, the greater the guarantee that advances will come. Still, it's worth remembering that those who persevere in sleuthing out the principles behind the fireworks of the stars are likely to own all the patents on man-made star power. They'll have the best know-how and win the best contracts after the secrets are known.

Nuclear fusion has the potential to give the world an immense new power source, vastly greater than the reserves of petroleum underlying the Persian Gulf, the coal in Appalachia or California's geothermal reserves. Americans, the greatest power-users history has ever known, must not become poor cousins, left out of the feast of knowledge that will result after the fusion riddle is finally solved.

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