Experts cast doubt on claims that scientists have succeeded in creating a nuclear fusion reaction
Associated Press in Seoul
guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 12 May 2010 08.07 BST
North Korea has claimed its scientists succeeded in creating a nuclear fusion reaction, but experts doubt the isolated communist country has made the breakthrough in clean-energy technology.
Fusion nuclear reactions produce little radioactive waste – unlike fission, which powers conventional nuclear power reactors – and some hope it could one day provide an abundant supply of clean energy. US and other scientists have been experimenting with fusion for decades but it has yet to be developed into a viable energy alternative.
North Korea's main newspaper reported that its own scientists achieved the feat on the Day of the Sun – a North Korean holiday in April marking the birthday of the country's late dynastic founder, Kim Il-sung.
Often North Korea's propaganda apparatus uses the occasions of holidays honouring Kim or his son, the current leader Kim Jong-il, to make claims of great achievements. These are rarely substantiated.
North Korean scientists "solved a great many scientific and technological problems entirely by their own efforts … thus succeeding in nuclear fusion reaction at last", the Rodong Sinmun newspaper said in a report carried by the north's official Korean Central News Agency.
Experts doubt the claim. "Nuclear fusion reaction is not something that can be done so simple. It's very difficult," said Hyeon Park, a physics professor at Postech, a science and technology university in South Korea.
Park, who conducts fusion research in South Korea, said the north may have succeeded in making a plasma device and produced plasma, a hot cloud of supercharged particles – only a preliminary step towards fusion.
He said outside experts needed to know the scale of the experiment and method of generating plasma to assess the details of the north's claim.
South Korea is in a seven-nation nuclear fusion consortium to build the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) in Cadarache, southern France, by 2015. Other members include China, the EU, Japan, Russia, India and the US.
The aim of ITER is to demonstrate by 2030 that atoms can be fused inside a reactor to efficiently produce electricity. Current forms of nuclear power do the opposite, harnessing the energy released from splitting atoms apart.
A South Korean official handling nuclear fusion at the ministry of education, science and technology said the north appeared to have conducted only a basic experiment.
The official said the fusion has nothing to do with making nuclear bombs and he could not make any further comment. He asked not to be identified because he was not authorised to speak to the media.
All of North Korea's nuclear projects are of intense concern because of worries it is building atomic weapons. Pyongyang conducted two nuclear bomb tests in 2006 and 2009, drawing international condemnation and UN sanctions.
Energy-starved North Korea has said it will build a light water nuclear power plant, ostensibly for civilian electricity. A nuclear power plant gives North Korea a premise to enrich uranium, which at low levels can be used in reactors but at higher concentration in nuclear bombs.