Physicists dreamed that Nukes — and the Cold War — would end in nuclear fusion. That’s in the past.

The world’s nuclear scientists have long had at least one daunting task: Where to put their experiments into the real world. A compact reactor has long been a practical model for fast neutrons and…

Physicists dreamed that Nukes — and the Cold War — would end in nuclear fusion. That’s in the past.

The world’s nuclear scientists have long had at least one daunting task: Where to put their experiments into the real world.

A compact reactor has long been a practical model for fast neutrons and inorganic matter that can be separated from the background so as to be vivisected and quenched at a fraction of its cooling depth. But it is extraordinarily expensive. Thus, for years, physicists have strived to refine their experiments on smaller and smaller devices.

No sooner had those tests paid off when the world stumbled on nuclear fusion.

In 1952, a World War II engineer, Fred Hoyle, announced that he had produced what he called a partial nuclear fusion reaction. At that time, big nuclear systems were being designed for ballistic missiles, which were increasingly ballistic. News that something could be built that could also serve the highway or aviation industries without requiring any ballistic capability appealed to a world that desired a cheap and rapid way to power a standard nuclear power plant.

Within a decade, some test reactors were being built, and the story of fusion energy would begin. But initial versions featured a messy corkscrew shaped fuel rod called a plasma chamber and had difficulty keeping the fuel outside the plasma, and sometimes crashed inside the chamber.

By 1967, the two-stage plutonium-powered HEU reactor that that Joseph Fernot and I report on had achieved a sustained state of fusion. It showed that large nuclear systems could indeed work without being ballistic missiles.

Nuclear fusion’s strength was its ability to release vast amounts of heat, without emitting a heat source of any kind. The Department of Energy started spending hundreds of millions of dollars developing nuclear fusion energy, and joined with Cold War foes like Russia and France to collaborate on commercial reactor designs and technology.

But the U.S. government became engulfed in the Cold War with the Soviet Union and has scarcely given any attention to nuclear fusion since the 1980s. The Democratic Party platform has some reassuring statements about how scientists should reach a fusion breakthrough. But the platform doesn’t talk about how the United States would actually get there.

Leave a Comment