With its tantalising promise of limitless energy, nuclear fusion has long been the stuff of science fiction. Now, though, a super-hi-tech facility deep in a forest in the South of France just might be able to turn it into science fact.
The physics is exhilarating stuff. It takes temperatures of an unimaginable 100 million Celsius or more – 10 times hotter than the core of the Sun – to fuse two hydrogen nuclei. But when they do, it produces a burst of energy and an atom of non-toxic (and extremely useful) helium.
Iter, in Provence, will not be turned on for another decade. Neither is it guaranteed to work. Although fusion has been proved possible in theory, it has never been tried at a scale that could be used as an energy source. Experts are optimistic, however, and it is difficult to overestimate the implications of success. At a stroke, humanity's reliance on dirty, dwindling fossil fuels would be brought to an end. So, too, would our need for conventional, nuclear fission power stations, with their dangerous reactors and toxic waste – a point that is particularly pertinent today, on the 27th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster. Finally – and most world-changing of all – successful large-scale fusion would, by eliminating energy scarcity, remove one of the sharpest brakes on technological development and dissemination.
In fact, even before our energy problems have been solved, there is cause for celebration here – and that is that Iter is so wonderfully international an endeavour. If tribute is to be paid to one individual, it must be to Evgeny Velikhov, the scientific adviser to Mikhail Gorbachev who was so active in pushing fusion to the forefront of Cold War politics. Under the "Atoms for Peace" initiative promoted by Mr Velikhov, Russia's "tokamak" reactor technology was put on the table in nuclear disarmament talks, and a worldwide scientific collaboration second only to the International Space Station was born.
Now, with some 34 countries contributing brains, money and equipment to the facility in France, the centre in Cadarache is thus not only a possible solution to one of our most pressing practical problems. Nor is it merely a stupendous advance for science. It is also testament to the potential for global teamwork to benefit all of human kind. Inspiring, indeed.