At the moment, Europe is at the forefront of fusion research, says Tuomas Tala. 

"The juxtaposition between fusion and fission is pointless" – Europe is at the forefront of fusion energy research

A fusion reaction is a nuclear reaction where two light atomic nuclei combine to form one heavier nucleus. Hold on – if fusion energy is also nuclear energy, why are more positive conceptions associated with it? And how does it differ from the more familiar fission reaction? And why are breakthroughs in fusion energy followed like the rising moon? 

"If the word fusion energy sounds difficult, it can be understood through a more familiar concept of company merger, where two companies consolidate. In a fusion reaction, two separate particles are combined into one, simultaneously releasing energy," explains Tuomas Tala, VTT's leading researcher and research professor of fusion technology. 

Fusion energy speaks volumes, and no wonder: the fusion reaction does not produce any high-level waste, unlike the fission reaction. Fission energy, the thing that we traditionally think of as nuclear power, on the other hand, leaves behind radioactive waste. The preservation of atomic fuels has sparked a lively debate for decades, which is why the safety of fusion energy attracts interest. 

Fusion energy offers another undeniable advantage in addition to cleaner energy. 

"Fusion reactors are safer because there are only about kilograms of fusion fuel in the reactor. In a fission reactor, the amount of fuel reaches hundreds of tons. In a fusion reactor, an accident affecting the surrounding environment, or its people simply cannot happen," Tala describes. 

From zero to net positive 

If fusion energy is so safe compared to fission energy, why do we still have nuclear plants based on fission? 

"Fusion energy is emission-free because it does not generate greenhouse emissions or high-level waste. Of course, helium is produced as a byproduct of fusion, which is not dangerous for the environment. However, low-level metal-based nuclear waste is generated in a fusion reactor at least as much as in a fission reactor," explains Tala. 

Another, more significant reason for the established position of fission power plants is energy production: In 2022, for the first time ever, the fusion reaction was able to produce more energy than was required for its maintenance. This is called a net positive fusion reaction. The amount of energy produced by two weeks of successful experiments could have boiled about ten liters of water, reported Finnish magazine Tekniikan Maailma last year. 

Although the result may sound unsuccessful, it is very significant. It has been proven that fusion energy can also work in practice and not just on a theoretical level. According to Tala, this has been reflected in the interest in fusion energy research - and perhaps in funding. 

"In the 1970s, fusion energy was the subject of enthusiasm, and at that time, it was thought that the success of fusion was only a matter of time. In the 90s, it was realized that this would take some time, and at the beginning of the 2000s, research progressed slowly. After 2020, progress was made, and enthusiasm for the issue started to rise again. And now, with recent successes, it has been easier to get projects funded in Finland as well." 

The field of fusion needs more engineers 

Tala chose nuclear energy at the Technical University over three other possible fields of study. In the same year, Finland joined the European Union, and thus, it became possible to participate in the fusion studies of the European Atomic Energy Community, Euratom. 

Right now, Europe is at the forefront of fusion research. According to Tala, research can, and does, live well in Finland because nuclear energy is viewed more positively than in many other countries. In the future, artificial intelligence will aid scientists in analyzing fusion data, and quantum computers will run the calculations. 

There are enough students in the field of fusion energy, especially in science. But fusion plants also require a considerable amount of engineering expertise to study materials technology and the construction of various devices. These fields are less crowded, so there is plenty to do in the future as well. 

Finally, Tala wants to emphasize one more thing: 

"The juxtaposition between fusion energy and fission energy is completely pointless. It is obvious that if the choice could be made, everyone would choose fusion. But fission is currently capable of producing energy economically, and fusion is still a long way off."


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