Engineers completed the first successful test of a nuclear-fusion reactor, which is expected eventually to have the first ''break-even'' fusion reaction to be demonstrated in the laboratory. A break-even reaction is one that produces as much energy as it consumes.
An elated Dr. Harold Furth, director of Princeton University's Plasma Physics Laboratory, said the giant Tokamak Fusion Test Reactor was turned on for the first time at 3:06 a.m., Eastern standard time, Christmas Eve, following months of round-the-clock activity.
The reactor worked as intended, and gave scientists hope the process could replace the atom-splitting, waste-producing fission process of today's nuclear-power generators.
Instead of splitting an atom, fusion creates power by squeezing matter and heating it up to 300 million degrees C. until hydrogen atoms fuse, releasing a gush of energy.
This is essentially the same thing that happens in the core of the sun or other stars, where the nuclei of small atoms fuse to form larger nuclei without the dangerous release of radioactivity caused by fission's bombardment of relatively larger atoms like plutonium, the scientists said.
The temperatures achieved in a fusion reactor are more than 10 times hotter than those at the core of the sun.
Fusion is still in the experimental stages, and is not expected to be available to energy users until the second quarter of the 21st century.