Fusion research shows collaboration works

ITER’s work on nuclear fusion is a shining example of the benfits of international collaboration.

For those who enjoy ‘on this day in history’ style miscellany, today is the 53rd birthday of the UK’s Atomic Energy Authority.

On 12 February 1954, the new body was set up to oversee development of the nation’s nuclear programme, taking responsibility from the ministry of supply, the now rather quaint-sounding government department that had controlled it until then.

UKAEA, as it is now known, is still very much with us, and is co-ordinating the UK’s contribution to the international research effort to develop nuclear fusion as a viable source of energy.

As this issue’s cover feature (Fusion future) demonstrates, the effort to harness fusion energy is by turns daunting and thrilling, involving challenges in science and engineering on an epic scale.

The feature forms part of The Engineer’s Year of Energy investigations into the major energy-related projects and issues facing the UK and the world.

If all goes to plan, ITER, the international fusion reactor project, will take fusion energy a big step closer to reality within a generation. It is also, of course, a significant example of international co-operation, with around 30 major nations forming the consortium behind the giant facility in France.

This makes ITER a fine, if rather dramatic, example of the subject of The Engineer’s comment in the last issue — international collaboration.

For those who missed it, this highlighted the argument of those who believe that retreating into a form of ‘techno-nationalism’ will damage the UK and other technologically advanced nations.

Instead, their argument goes, we should enthusiastically embrace partnerships, alliances and joint ventures across the world, reaping the benefits when the UK is established as a leading international force in various key technological disciplines.

So what does ITER tell us about international collaboration on a grand scale? First, that technology cannot escape the realities of global politics and diplomacy. The project was the subject of some major horse trading over its location and funding arrangements, and turned into the scientific equivalent of the Olympics when Japan and France emerged as the two ‘finalists’ in the race.

Now that is all settled. The politicians have returned to the sidelines and the engineers and scientists are running the show.

And pleasingly, the UK is at the forefront of the endeavour, not least because of the existing Joint European Torus in Oxfordshire, where much of the research needed to make ITER work is being carried out.

Fusion research may be untypical, but it seems to lend weight to the argument that international collaboration is a virtue compared to the alternative of pulling up the drawbridge and going it alone.

Securing new sources of ‘clean’ energy is the whole world’s problem, and it is fitting that the world should tackle it together.

Andrew Lee


The Engineer and The Engineer Online