The Germans announced on Thursday that they had briefly created a helium plasma in its Wendelstein 7-X machine using a microwave laser. This is the latest breakthrough in scientists’ attempts at creating a nuclear fusion reactor. This would create immensely more power than any of the existing nuclear reactors which operate on the fission principle. It would give virtually unlimited electricity. In turning hydrogen into helium a fusion reactor is it would have no pollution by-products.
For this reason there have been many attempts at creating a viable fusion reactor — by the Americans, British, Japanese, French, an international consortium, the EU — and there have been many previous ‘breakthroughs’. However, it is a phenomenally difficult technology and none has succeeded yet. But even if the Germans, the best engineers in the world, succeed, it is still doubtful whether a fusion reactor will ever be built.
The fact of the matter is that as hydrogen atoms are built up into helium atoms — and thus release prodigious energy — then the whole reactor and the surrounding space would be irradiated with neutrons. Once such a reactor has started nobody would ever be able to go near it. All possible robots designed to repair all conceivable breakdowns would have to be designed first. Such would not be impossible in time, of course, but would any government or private contractor be prepared to make enormous investments on the basis that any breakdown would always be repairable? As it is already, no private insurance company is prepared to cover ‘ordinary’ fission reactors. I think the risk would always be considered too great. Fusion reactions are all very well when taking place in the sun == as they do — but not on earth.