Shipbuilding with the precision of a watchmaker - ITER with Michael Loughlin
My Nuclear LifeApril 26, 2022
00:41:3895.33 MB

Shipbuilding with the precision of a watchmaker - ITER with Michael Loughlin

The history of fusion as a source of energy is discussed along with past and current projects. Is a fusion power plant still decades away? Visit us at: Patreon: email us
Shelly Lesher
Shelly Lesher

Welcome to the My Nuclear Life podcast! In this episode, host Shelly Lesher takes a break from war and destruction to discuss the topic most requested by fans: fusion.  Despite her extensive experience with nuclear physics, Shelly says that she knows little about fusion.  However, expert Michael Loughlin was gracious enough to move from podcast listener to guest for this episode, and he joins the show to talk about what nuclear fusion is, how it works, and what opportunities it offers!  Michael holds a PhD in nuclear physics and has spent over thirty years in fusion research.  Most recently, time with the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) in Southern France.  ITER is said to be the most expensive building ever built and the largest scientific research collaboration in history, and Michael’s own work with ITER is in nuclear shielding and radiation transport. 

Diving into the science of fusion, Shelly asks when scientists started researching fusion as an energy source.  From the discovery that the sun uses nuclear fusion to wars and their use of nuclear science for weapons development, nuclear fusion has been a subject of interest to scientists for many years.  International collaboration around fusion started with Russians visiting the UK to exchange information and turned toward the global building of Tokomaks.  Michael also explains how nuclear fusion differs from nuclear fission, and how both rely on the interaction between mass and energy.  To achieve fusion, scientists must heat up plasma, making it hot and dense enough to encourage a nuclear reaction.  There are major engineering challenges within the science of fusion; it’s hard to use fusion as an energy amplifier, to control plasma, and to build effective containment and transport systems.  Despite the challenges, though, fusion is appealing because of what it offers in itself and because of how it may be used as a source of power (and function without the danger of explosion that fission brings with it!).

Turning to nuclear fusion projects that have been carried out, Michael explains how they mainly fall into the two categories of projects relying on a magnetic environment and those functioning by inertial fusion.  The development of fusion research is slow and raises concerns about transfer of knowledge, but Michael has seen major technical victories in vacuum techniques, transport, and more.  The work of ITER, in particular, is based on the purpose of demonstrating the technological feasibility of fusion as a source of energy.  Given that fusion provides valuable baseload electricity supply, ITER’s efforts center on laying the groundwork to make a fusion-based power supply a reality.  Will there be a commercial fusion power station in our lifetimes?  Michael has reason to think and hope so, but to achieve this, fusion research must accelerate!  Ultimately, if it doesn’t happen, Michael wants the reason to be that the goal was impossible, not that the scientific community lacked cleverness, drive, or funding.


Check out the article on Michael’s work that Shelly referenced.

Visit the My Nuclear Life website for information, or email us at

My Nuclear Life now has a Patreon page, where you can subscribe for bonus content!

Please leave a 5-star rating and a review, and don’t forget to subscribe to My Nuclear Life wherever you listen to podcasts and share the show with friends!  

Production costs for this episode were provided through National Science Foundation Grant PHY-2011267.