‘The mighty Zeta: limitless fuel for millions of years” trumpeted the newspapers. It was January 25, 1958 and Britain’s media were alive with the news that the nation’s scientists had created the world’s first controlled fusion reaction. It was, they promised, the dawn of a new era, when power would be both limitless and free.Alongside the stories were photographs of a giant machine, codenamed Zeta, whose existence had been one of the nation’s most closely guarded secrets, alongside the triumphant young scientists who had built it.The fanfare followed a news conference called the day before by Sir John Cockcroft, the Nobelprize-winning director of the government’s Harwell research laboratories and one of our most respected scientists.
he told the assembled media, had achieved temperatures of 5,000,000C –
generating the world’s first controlled nuclear fusion reaction.
Britain this discovery is greater than the Russian sput-nik,” he
declared, promising a commercial fusion reactor within 20 years.
That was 49 years ago. Just
a few months later Cockcroft quietly issued a press release. His
researchers had, it seemed, been mistaken. Zeta had never achieved
fusion. It had not even achieved temperatures of 5mC. The machine was a
Cockcroft’s blunder was,
however, far from the last. Over the years, fusion’s lure of limitless
energy has tempted many more scientists andpoliticians into the same
trap of wishful thinking. In 2002 one set of researchers announced that
they had achieved bubble fusion, while in 1989 another group announced
that they had achieved cold fusion. All have ended in retractions,
recrimination and humiliation.
What, then, are we to make
of a new announcement last week, again from Harwell, that Britain could
once more be on the road to achieving nuclear fusion?
Professor Mike Dunne, of
the Rutherford Appleton laboratory, is seeking a £500m grant from the
European Union to build a machine that will, he hopes, finally achieve
fusion. Last week he got the green light to start designing the machine
and finding a site for it. Dunne was far more cautious that Cockcroft,
warning that success will take many years and that it was far from
guaranteed. Underneath it, however, lay the same hope: thatBritain
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