Scientists at Culham are looking back on the first 50 years of a project to create fusion energy but they are also looking forward to new challenges ahead. Callum Keown finds out more

Fifty years ago a science centre opened in Culham that promised to change the world.

A lot has changed since then but the team hopes the next half century will see fusion power – first created at the plant – solve the world’s energy crisis.

The Culham Centre for Fusion Energy was formed in 1965 with the aim of generating fusion power – by creating the conditions of a star on the Earth to produce clean energy.

In 1977, Culham was chosen as the base for an ambitious multi-national project to produce fusion and demonstrate that it could produce significant quantities of power.

Physicists and engineers from around Europe joined the team and, in 1991, their machine JET (Joint European Taurus) produced the world’s first release of fusion energy.

In 1997 it broke the world record by generating 16 megawatts.

Technology is advancing and experiments are getting bigger and bolder and the centre’s chief executive Prof Steve Cowley said the next 50 years represented a huge opportunity.

He said: “The centre was formed for one purpose, to produce fusion energy and we are still doing that so in some sense nothing has changed.

“There are a whole set of challenges ahead to produce it more efficiently and cheaply.

“In 50 years’ time we hope it will be used to power homes.”

Prof Cowley, who was researcher at the site in the 1980s before returning as director in 2008, said the institution, which has 650 staff, was in a strong place.

He said: “We have some of the brightest scientists from around the world here – we take on around 80 PhD students each year.

“We also have a number of different projects running here. There is a robotics test centre and a materials research centre.”

Next year a new machine, MAST (Mega Amp Spherical Tokamak) Upgrade, currently being built, will attempt to produce fusion energy more cheaply and efficiently.

The latest project at Culham is a far cry from the early days.

Dr Michael Forrest worked at the site when it first opened in 1965, with 800 staff, and still returns regularly as a consultant.

The 81-year-old said: “It’s a wonderful place to work but a lot has changed over the past 50 years.

“When you take into account Harwell, Rutherford Appleton and Culham it’s probably the area with the highest density of science in the world.”

He added: “Experiments that we did in the early years were much smaller and took a few weeks or even hours to complete. They are so much bigger now that they can take decades.”

For nuclear fusion energy to be generated temperatures of more than 100 million degrees must be created.

Dr Forrest was tasked with discovering a method of measuring these extreme temperatures.


  • Ambitious: Part of the Cleo tokamak experiment in plasma confinement in 1973

The invention of the laser helped him and his team initially but it was a slow process.

He said: “We did not have computers when we first started so it took us ages to analyse data – now we can do it in real time.”

There was also a vibrant social side which played second fiddle to the ground-breaking science taking place at Culham – particularly in the early years.

Sports and music clubs are still run today and many ‘Eureka’ moments have come during conversations over coffee or lunch.

Dr Forrest said: “It was like a university really and there was a good social life.

“In the 1960s and 1970s we had big dances over two floors where the restaurant was and everyone went to them.

“There was a football team and music clubs too – it was a great place to be.”