The thawing of relations between the United States and Soviet Union has led to a heating up of information exchanged concerning nuclear energy.
At the Eighth Topical Meeting on the Technology of Fusion Energy this week in Salt Lake City, some 200 fusion experts from around the globe are exchanging information and updates on the status of nuclear energy in their countries.Fusion energy is formed when two nuclei are joined, or fused, together. Fusion normally involves isotopes of hydrogen and helium. While the technology is not as mature as fission, in which the nucleus is split to form energy, fusion has the advantage of producing less waste and requiring less radioactive fuel than fission.
Fusion energy's advantages over fossil fuels and fission reactors currently in use are prompting nations to more closely examine the technology now under research. Radioactive waste produced in fission reactors has its own political and environmental fallout. And fossil fuels slowly nibble away at the ozone layer, which shields the earth from the sun's harmful rays.
Fusion experts from the United States, Italy, France, Canada, the United Kingdom, Soviet Union, Australia and Japan presented papers during the five-day conference on such subjects as laser technology, decay behavior of radioactive materials and safety.
President Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's 1986 agreement for a freer exchange of technical information has allowed Soviet scientists such as Lev Golubchikov, with the State Committee on Utilization of Atomic Energy, to attend the conference sponsored by the American Nuclear Society.
Regular meetings between U.S. and Soviet scientists were held after a similar agreement in 1974 between then President Nixon and Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev.
"We had good cooperation all those years," Golubchikov said Wednesday in an interview at the Little America Hotel. "There was some lower levels in the early '80s (because of weakening relations between the two countries). Now we have come back to our position in the late '70s. In the last two years, we are trying to make mutual cooperations in the aspects of fusion energy."
Satellite pictures recently released by NASA showed a hole in the ozone layer over the Arctic. The theory is fossil fuels degrade the ozone and allow the sun's rays to heat up the environment. Further heating is trapped by layers of pollution, which causes gradual increases in global temperatures and eventual melting of the polar icecaps.
"It's a global problem," said Golubchikov. "It's very difficult to solve it using the capabilities of one country."
The big four in nuclear energy production - the United States, Soviet Union, European countries and Japan - have joined together to research the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor which uses fusion theory to produce energy.
"It's the first time the four major individual parts of the world are working together in at least research and development," said Robert J. Dowling, director of the Department of Energy's fusion energy development and technology division.
"This is not a quick technology," Dowling said. "And what we're trying to do is reproduce on Earth what goes on in the sun and the stars. We should have called it solar energy."
Countries such as Canada, which is considered part of the European conference, do not have the budget to experiment and produce fusion energy on a large scale.
"For any one country to undertake this on its own, it gets very expensive," said Gil Phillips, manager of Fusion Canada's fusion fuels program. "The perception is if we cooperate we can achieve our goals (and) avoid duplicating goals.
"We would like to trade our expertise in our own area for expertise in another area," said Phillips, who oversees the fusion program for the national atomic energy agency.
The technology at this is point is about two years away from producing fusion energy. Commercial applications are more than a decade in the future.
But the concern about ozone depletion and the role fossil fuels have played in the problem are "raising the consciousness of a world-wide question," Dowling said, adding, "You can't work in a vacuum any more."