Thrice Upon a Time
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Through the latter half of the twentieth century, despite alarmist accusations that research was being sabotaged by political and commercial vested interests in oil, two broad approaches emerged to solving the confinement problem. The first to be investigated was magnetic confinement, in which the hydrogen plasma was trapped inside magnetic "bottles" of various shapes and then heated by the injection of electromagnetic radiation or of high-velocity particle beams. The second approach was inertial confinement, which came later. It consisted of crushing to super high densities small pellets of hydrogen fuel at very high speed using the inertia of the nuclei to drive them together and fuse before repulsion could stop them. This was achieved by dumping an enormous amount of energy on the surface of a pellet in a very short space of time typically measured in thousandths of a microsecond; under such conditions the outer skin of the pellet exploded away and created an opposite, inward reaction-force that imploded the core, rather like a spherical rocket. To convey the required energy to the pellet, three technologies were developed: laser beams, electron beams, and ion beams.

The first generation of working fusion reactors went into operation in the United States and the U.S.S.R. in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Both nations had developed magnetic methods as their primary form of approach, but eventually supplemented them with one of the inertial alternatives, the Americans opting for lasers, the Russians for e-beams. Although they both pursued research on ion beams, neither nation gave priority to perfecting techniques involving them.

The European Fusion Consortium finally got its act together in 1990 after a spate of delays and bickering resulting from jealousies and petty politics that should have been forgotten generations before. The choice open to the Europeans by this time was either to buy into the technologies that had been pioneered elsewhere, which would have cost them considerably in money, prestige, and national pride, or to go for ion beams. They chose the latter. Besides the obvious reasons, the approach promised several distinct technical advantages. For one thing, ions were more massive than electrons and could carry far more energy at a given velocity; also, because of their high inertia, they could be focused onto their targets from relatively long distances, thus reducing substantially the problems of designing final focusing equipment that would withstand the bombardment from a sustained barrage offusionoexplosionss. And on top of this the techniques for generating and controlling particle beams were well understood after decades of high-energy accelerator physics, which meant that a lot of lost time could be made up by exploiting an already mature technology. In fact the attractions of ion beams were so evident that the Europeans wondered why neither of the superpowers had concentrated on them in the first place. But that wasn't the Europeans' problem.

In a rare revival of the enterprising spirit that had inundated the world with bibles and gunboats in years gone by, the nations of the European Fusion Consortium elected to go whole hog with a project that would surpass in concept and scale any of the first-generation reactors that had been conceived by the end of the twentieth century. It would be a gigantic, heavy ion facility designed to perform a triple role: It would produce power and deliver thousands of megawatts into the European supply grid; it would use a portion of the fast neutrons produced in the fusion process to convert abundant deuterium into tritium, thus manufacturing its own fuel; and it would breed heavy isotopes to help satisfy Europe fission reactor needs.

The haggling, of course, began when they tried to agree on where to build it. In the end, ironically, the issue was decided by oil. Although the long-term picture was at last beginning to look quite cheerful, oil would still be needed for many years to come to keep the wheels of Europe turning. The British had acquired the lion s share of the oil fields developed in the North Sea; they could therefore sell oil to the other Consortium nations far more cheaply than the traditional overseas suppliers could, or at least were disposed to. And in the 1990s the prospect of cheap oil for a while was not something to treat lightly. Furthermore, if British oil was going to be channeled into Europe, it was only fair exchange, surely, that European fusion power should be sited where it could sustain the industries that the availability of that same oil had engendered.

And besides, the British pointed out, they would be much nicer people to do business with than those insufferable Arab chaps with their never ending squabbles and price hikes. Breeding would tell, and all that. It all added up to an unassailable position at the bargaining table. And so, finally, Burghead it turned out to be.

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