Power to the people

22.02.41: THERMONUCLEAR FUSION - the power source of the sun - has finally been harnessed on Earth.

The engineers who cracked the toughest technological nut of all are talking euphorically of 'energy without limit' and 'the end of all mankind's energy problems'.

It was shortly after midday yesterday that power surged into the Pan-European Grid System from the world's first commercial fusion reactor, at Thorpeness, Suffolk. Already, 12 countries have ordered 27 reactors from Artemis Industries. Within 20 years, most of the world's energy needs will be met by fusion. "Energy will never worry humanity again," said a jubilant Thorpeness engineer.

A fusion reactor is a controlled hydrogen bomb. It works by sticking together light atomic nuclei, a process that unleashes a burst of nuclear binding energy. This energy is far greater than the binding energy liberated in the "splitting", or fission, of the heavy nuclei in a conventional reactor. Fusion's other great advantage is that it uses deuterium, heavy hydrogen, which is easily obtainable from sea water, promising unlimited energy. But some energy analysts were predicting the outbreak of a power war. Already, the multinational power-sat companies, which use huge orbiting arrays of solar panels to collect sunlight and beam it down to Earth, are slashing the unit costs of electricity.

Other critics are highlighting the safety problems of fusion. Harnessing the power source of the sun on Earth involves heating a cocktail of deuterium and tritium to 100m degrees. The temperature is so high that the fireball must be confined within a magnetic bottle or it will vaporise the reactor. The most serious problem comes from the super-fast neutrons spat out by the fusion process. These pieces of atomic shrapnel heat the water that makes the steam that drives the turbines that generate electricity. But the neutrons can also weaken the metal structures of the reactor and make them radioactive.

"Say the radiators in your home made it uninhabitable," said a spokesman for EarthPeace. "That's the equivalent problem the fusion people have swept under the carpet - and they haven't found the answer." MC