Remember the Cold War? Those were good times, weren't they? Ska music, track suits, the US and the USSR working together to create fusion power - wait. What? Yep. It's true. In 1985 Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and US president Ronald Reagan actually decided to work together to one day create the holy grail of clean energy: a fusion reactor. Well, it seems it's a good thing that they started in 1985, because scientists and engineers are still working on completing the first reactor.
So, what's the big deal about fusion power? Well, it's responsible for all life on Earth. That's right, it's the process that powers the Sun and other stars. Scientists are pretty sure that if they can get a fusion reactor working here on Earth, we will have a source of clean, almost limitless energy. This is why the US, the former USSR, and a number of other countries have been working together for so long to try to make this vision a reality.
Even today, 30 years into the project, they're not even close to being done. Estimates are that it will be at least another four years before the organization carries out its first experiment. But they're not giving up. They have had some achievements over the years. In 2006 they agreed on a name: the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (or ITER) project, and they have established a reputation for the project as a money pit. Though original estimates for the cost of the project were about 5.56 billion dollars, they've now ballooned to around 15 billion.
You may be wondering, 30 years? What's taking them so long? Well, the thing is, essentially starting a tiny star, here on Earth, containing the reaction, and keeping it going, is really, really difficult, and up to this point the project seems to have been suffering from significant organizational deficits.
But the project has a new boss:Bernard Bigot. He's 65, a scientist and long-term chief of France's Atomic Energy Commission (CEA). Bigot was named ITER's director general in March, replacing Japanese physicist Osamu Motojima. He insists the the ITER project has turned a corner. "There has been a learning process," Bigot says. "Today, there's a real awareness among all the partners that this project has to have a dimension of strong management to it."
Fusion has actually been achieved in a few labs around the world, but it's been at great cost, and so far no one's been able to maintain the reaction. That's the job the ITER's taken on: to see if it's possible to create a working fusion reactor, and to test if it's a realistic power source for the 21st century. But, again, doing this isn't easy. Creating a sustained fusion reaction involves forcing together the nuclei of light atomic elements in a super-heated plasma. The only way to contain this reaction is to hold it inside massively powerful magnetic field inside a doughnut-shaped chamber called a tokamak. As the nuclei in the reactor collide, they make heavier elements, which releases huge amounts of energy. Basically, instead of splitting atoms apart the way nuclear fission does, fusion forces atoms together. Fusion is harder, but compare the results: fission creates significant amounts of radioactive waste, some of the most toxic materials known to humanity, waste that will still be highly radioactive in ten thousand years. Fusion creates ... well, just a lot of energy, with no radioactive waste at all.
"There have been difficulties," Bigot admits, "but we still have total faith in nuclear fusion as being worthy of the investment."