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The Fusion Revolution

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Men work inside a HL-2M Tokamak nuclear fusion reactor, dubbed as the “artificial sun”, under construction in Chengdu, Sichuan province, China, June 5, 2019. (Liu Haiyun/Chengdu Economic Daily via Reuters) Why we need fusion power — and why it’s grand that free enterprise is picking up the challenge.

During the summer of 1985, I was a part of an engineering team at Los Alamos National Lab working on the first design of a fusion reactor based on the then very advanced spherical-tokamak (ST) concept. At a group lunch toward the end of the effort, our team leader, Robert Krakowski, reflected philosophically.

“You know,” Krakowski said, “when fusion power is finally developed, it won’t be at a place like Los Alamos or Livermore. It will be done by a couple of crackpots working in a garage.”

We all laughed at this, knowing full well how the formidable difficulties of fusion-power development put such a feat well beyond the capabilities of garage inventors. But in recent years the trend has moved forcefully toward validating Krakowski’s prophecy. Around the world, well-funded entrepreneurial efforts have begun to make fusion power a reality. Indeed, many of them are now outpacing official government programs. At this rate, there is an excellent chance that the first controlled thermonuclear fusion reactors will be ignited before this decade is out — if not by crackpots in a garage, then perhaps by a team of start-up company engineers working in a warehouse.

In his book, The Star Builders: Nuclear Fusion and the Race to Power the Planet, Arthur Turrell reports on some of this activity. In his telling, though, he slights it — apparently viewing it as a sideshow to the flagship International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) and National Ignition Facility (NIF) programs. This is a mistake.

Planning for the ITER program first began in the 1980s, and by the summer of 1985 was already viewed as a “scandal” by many working on the front lines of the fusion program. Fusion had made steady progress between the 1950s and ’80s, driven by a lively competition between

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