H-Diplo Article Review 1182: Hof on Curli, “The Origins of Euratom’s Research on Controlled Thermonuclear Fusion"

christopher ball Discussion

H-Diplo Article Review 1182

31 May 2023

Barbara Curli, “The Origins of Euratom’s Research on Controlled Thermonuclear Fusion: Cold War Politics and European Integration, 1958–1968 Contemporary European History. Published online by Cambridge University Press: 27 May 2022. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/S0960777322000133

Editor: Diane Labrosse | Commissioning Editor: Elisabeth Roerhlich | Production Editor: Christopher Ball

Review by Barbara Hof, University of Lausanne

Barbara Curli’s article offers remarkable and relevant insights into the role of science in the European unification process in the postwar era. In 1957, France, Italy, the Benelux countries, and the Federal Republic of Germany founded the European Atomic Energy Community (Euratom). Part of their new cooperation was based upon the aim of advancing controlled thermonuclear fusion as a promising young field of inquiry. Prior to this decision, fusion studies had already been conducted in several European countries (including the non-Euratom states the United Kingdom, Norway, and Sweden, all of which were comparatively strong in fusion science at the time). As a result of their joint decision, fusion science was included in Euratom’s first five-year program in 1958.

Fusion is a technology for combining atomic nuclei into more nuclei to produce more energy. Its roots lie in weapons research and the subsequent first H-bomb tests by the United States in 1952 and by the Soviet Union in 1955. As part of the “Atoms for Peace” campaign, both sides began to “declassify” information about fusion science three years later, leading to a change in research funding. It was now oriented toward visions of providing energy from nuclear fusion as an alternative to uranium fission, which is common in energy generation today.

But to date, fusion research has not produced technical discoveries that can be readily translated into industrial use. Instead, this scientific field has experienced many ups and downs, with the recent successful generation of fusion ignition at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory hailed as a major successful milestone.[1] These “hype cycles”[2] lead to criticism of the need for and purpose of large investments, but also raise hopes for the future of fusion as an alternative to limited, dangerous, and carbon-intensive resources. In the introduction, Curli refers to this constant renegotiation and reemergence of promises as “fusion imaginary,” aptly summarizing earlier historical studies. Thus, readers may enjoy exploring the tensions between scholarly work addressing the issue of rising energy demand, those discussing recent fusion research projects, and Curli’s article focusing on intra-European political history.[3]

Curli sheds light on how the first Euratom research program was implemented between 1958 and 1968. Drawing on sources from archives in Italy and France, as well as several original documents from the archives of the European Union (from which Euratom is legally separate, even though it is administered by the same countries), Curli extends and refines some of the insights and arguments she presented in an earlier book chapter.[4]

While historical research on fusion is still a niche topic, it combines several important themes: international relations, national governance, the Cold War, postwar economic growth, science and technology, as well as imaginaries and the search for new energy sources. Curli integrates multiple perspectives to form the analytical framework of this article: the early history of Euratom, postwar internationalism, the conduct and organization of technoscience, and big science history in the context of European integration. In this way, Curli’s article makes an important contribution to the growing body of literature on science diplomacy.[5]

In six sections, the article approaches Europeanization through the means of nuclear fusion by examining the superior coordination work of Euratom. The substance of the article begins with the “declassification turn” (3) in the area of fusion science in 1958, with its final episode in the context of the second “Atoms for Peace” conference in Geneva. Before declassification began, there were three fusion superpowers: the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Soviet Union. After the “declassification turn,” they all provided relevant information about fusion of non-military significance to other nations, similar to what had happened with knowledge of reactor technology following the first “Atoms for Peace” conference” in 1955. The fact that the Soviet Union was recognized by other countries as a leader in fusion science would perhaps explain the strong interest in cooperation with the Soviet leaders (4); this interesting detail, which suggests that international competition provided a fertile ground for East-West collaboration, goes without further comment.

In 1958, with the exception of France, the countries of continental Europe had no expertise in fusion science or had only recently initiated exploratory research projects. Euratom representatives considered this area of research to be promising, particularly in terms of meeting future energy demand. Curli briefly reviews the programs that had already been established in the Euratom member states France, Italy, and West Germany, which formed the basis for Euratom’s involvement. Accordingly, in the second section, Curli examines the period following the “Treaty of Rome,” which was signed by the founding members of Euratom in March 1957, and which made fusion science a priority in scientific cooperation. The decision to entrust contracts to European laboratories was taken in the summer of 1958, shortly before the opening of the second “Atoms for Peace” conference.

In the third section, Curli discusses the short-lived collaboration between Euratom and the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), meaning the joint work of two major European organizations with different goals, which offers a great anecdote about the attempted and soon failed settlement in the overlapping framework of physics and Europeanization. As in the previous section, however, the question of why France pushed for this exchange and what this says about the role of nuclear fusion for this nation is not addressed. Furthermore, Curli argues that this joint effort was the most important effort in Europe in 1958, but does not consider the European Nuclear Energy Agency (ENEA; founded in 1957 as an institute of the Organization for European Economic Co-operation) and its possible interest in an exchange, even though Euratom and ENEA were certainly closer in their principles than CERN and Euratom.

The fourth and fifth sections analyze the launch of Euratom’s fusion program led by Italian physicist Donato Palumbo, who managed the common project until his retirement in 1986. Curli explores the five association contracts that Euratom signed with France, Italy, Dutch, and West Germany, initially financing research for three years. By way of these contracts, Euratom supported fusion science projects at institutions already established in these countries rather than to opt for a common new laboratory. Curli offers revealing, well-researched insights into intra-West German coordination and what it meant for that state, particularly by illustrating the foundation of the “Institute für Plasmaforschung in der Max-Planck-Gesellschaft” in 1959 with Euratom’s involvement.

The sixth section focuses on the emergence and the training of a transnational community and provides important background on how technoscientific cooperation drove European integration. However, in its focus on the period from 1958 to 1968 and description of frictions and tensions, the article illustrates the coordination between national projects in France, Italy, and West Germany rather than their collaboration. Information exchange and research funding are perhaps a good precondition, but are not necessarily synonymous with integration, I would argue, or rather this terminology is in need of clarification at this point. The funding of multi-site programs was certainly an important first step toward the creation of European “integration” and “identity” (17), but these two analytical terms seem better suited for later periods. Indeed, these steps toward European integration and identity become clearer in the conclusion. Here, the creation of the big European fusion machine JET in the late 1970s is mentioned, a period which Curli is studying in ongoing research projects.

Curli’s article offers a multifaceted analysis of the first steps Europe took to put itself on the map in the area of fusion science. There are two minor points of interpretation on which it is possible to come to somewhat different conclusions. First, one might object to how relevant the “Cold War politics” framework is to the narrative presented in this article. Of course, the origins of thermonuclear research are in the military, and the terminology “controlled” in controlled thermonuclear fusion is a propagandistic term. While historians have discussed the strong interests of the US government in influencing Euratom as part of its Cold War strategy,[6] “Cold War politics” does little to explain why Euratom sought intra-European cooperation after 1958, as this article discusses. Rather, it presents the West and the East as models that Europeans followed because of economic considerations, because their energy consumption was increasing rapidly, and because European politicians and scientists shared with their counterparts abroad the belief that nuclear fusion could be the next big thing. Second, the article lacks elaboration on the content and programs of fusion research and on the approaches by which fusion was actually explored between 1958 and 1968, a time when this area of research was still young and poorly organized, pursuing four main concepts based on different technical devices.[7] This is important for reasons that go beyond the possible interests of historians of science: by focusing on international politics but leaving out the development of fusion research and the diversity of projects, this article may have missed a possible explanation of why some laboratories cooperated with each other and others less so, and how competition between different research groups might have helped or hindered the European integration process.

These critical points aside, overall, Curli’s article on the first decade of Euratom’s research program in the field of controlled thermonuclear fusion is excellent. It offers important lessons about politics by means of international scientific exchange, providing a solid foundation for further studies. Most of Curli’s arguments are persuasive and carefully judged, and the article offers a good reappraisal of the formative moments in European scientific cooperation at the turn of the 1960s.


Barbara Hof is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Lausanne, conducting research on the history of digital technologies as part of the SNSF-funded project “Towards Computational Historiographical Modeling.” She is currently also working on her first book, which demonstrates how high levels of government funding of the nuclear technosciences during the Cold War changed the demand for knowledge and how access to this knowledge became a powerful tool in national politics and international relations.


[1] Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, “National Ignition Facility achieves fusion ignition.” News, 14 December 14 2022. DOI: https://www.llnl.gov/news/national-ignition-facility-achieves-fusion-ignition

[2] Harro van Lente, Charlotte Spitters, and Alexander Peine, “Comparing Technological Hype Cycles: Towards a Theory.” Technological Forecasting and Social Change 80: 8 (2013): 1615–28. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0040162512003198

[3] Anna Åberg, “The Ways and Means of ITER: Reciprocity and Compromise in Fusion Science Diplomacy,” History and Technology, 37: 1 (2021). DOI: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/07341512.2021.1891851; W. Patrick McCray, ‘“Globalization with Hardware”: ITER’s Fusion of Technology, Policy, and Politics,” History and Technology 26: 4 (2010), 283-312. DOI: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/07341512.2010.523171; Michel Claessens, ITER: The Giant Fusion Reactor: Bringing a Sun to Earth (Cham: Springer, 2019); Benjamin K. Sovacool and Brent Brossmann, “The Rhetorical Fantasy of Energy Transitions: Implications for Energy Policy and Analysis,” Technology Analysis & Strategic Management, 26: 7 (2014): 198-220. DOI: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/09537325.2014.905674; Vaclav Smil, Energy Myths and Realities: Bringing Science to the Energy Policy Debate (Washington, DC: AEI Press, 2010).

[4] Barbara Curli, “Italy, Euratom and Early Research on Controlled Thermonuclear Fusion (1957-1962),” in Elisabetta Bini and Igor Londero, Nuclear Italy: An International History of Italian Nuclear Policies during the Cold War (EUT Edizioni Università di Trieste, 2017): 57-76.

[5] For a recent overview, see: Matthew Adamson and Roberto Lalli, “Global Perspectives on Science Diplomacy: Exploring the Diplomacy‐knowledge Nexus in Contemporary Histories of Science,” Centaurus 63: 1 (2021): 1–16. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1111/1600-0498.12369.

[6] For a fundamental study, see: John Krige, “The Peaceful Atom as Political Weapon: Euratom and American Foreign Policy in the late 1950s,” Historical Studies in the Natural Sciences 38: 1 (2008): 5–44. DOI: https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/hsns.2008.38.1.5#metadata_info_tab_contents.

[7] The fusion programs in the late 1950s were based on the use of the tokomak (in the form of a torus); the pinch (in which plasma is kept in place thanks to magnetic fields); the magnetic mirror (where plasma is reflected from a high-end-density to a low-end-density magnetic field); and the stellarator (a helical system relying on magnetic fields to hold the plasma), see: Matteo Barbarino, “A brief history of nuclear fusion,” Nature Physics, 16 (2020): 890–893. DOI: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41567-020-0940-7.