Hijacking a JET: How Culham was chosen

Exactly 40 years ago, the German plane ‘Landshut’ was hijacked by terrorists. With the help of many international partners, the West-German Government managed to free all 86 passengers at Mogadishu airport. Since then, rumour has it that the final decision regarding the location of the Joint European Torus (JET) was directly linked to these events. In fact, the incident in Somalia had strengthened the consensus but did, after all, not actually tip the scale towards Culham.

On 25th October, France, Denmark, Ireland, Netherlands and the UK had spoken out in favour of the UK site. Germany and Luxemburg had supported Garching as the host and Belgium and Italy had abstained. Coming to this agreement had been a major debate between England and Germany for years and had almost led to the end of JET, even before its construction had begun.

The hijacking of the ‘Landshut’

To this date, rumours abound that Germany gave up their ambitions to host JET in order to thank the British government for their support during the terrorist attack. On 13th October 1977, four members of the “Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine” hijacked the Lufthansa Boeing ‘Landshut’, a Lufthansa Boeing. The British government did, in fact, supply a specific type of grenade which was used successfully by the German Special Forces team when they stormed the plane.

But was that the price that was paid in order to host the future most developed fusion experiment in the world?

A successful joint rescue

f you study the official, publicly available, German documents carefully, you start to doubt it. In fact, British Prime Minister James Callaghan and German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt had met on 18th October 1977, a previously arranged meeting, when the news broke that the ‘Landshut’ passengers had been freed safely. Both country leaders now came together with revived spirits in the light of the successful joint rescue operation. On the agenda were highly sensitive topics, most of them discussing European-related topics, such as issues in the Middle East.

Interestingly enough, the location of the Joint European Torus was on that list too. The whole project was already facing the dawn of a closing-down phase. Since the beginning of the year, discussions about its location had remained in deadlock with the Council of Ministers in Brussels. The contracts of international scientists already on the existing JET Management Committee were about to end.

UK to host JET for the common European idea

According to the German minutes of the meeting, the atmosphere between Schmidt and Callaghan seemed friendly and respectful. Schmidt expressed his gratitude for the English support during the ‘Landshut’ attack; Callaghan responded that Germany was actually fighting against terrorists attacking the democratic freedom worldwide. The talks then continued and arrived at the topic of the JET site. In fact, the British Prime Minister stated that one should not overrate the dividing elements in their relationship. Anyhow, the British government eagerly wanted to host a joint European device in order to demonstrate their strong commitment to the common idea of Europe. Either way, should the Council in Brussels decide on Garching, England will not veto it.

Consensus achieved

The German chancellor also acted in an accommodating manner towards this friendly opening. He admitted that the JET site had become much too prestigious and should rather be discussed on a professional than a political level. Schmidt would therefore also agree on a consensus.
What had been a matter of debate for over two years was then resolved by the final decision of the Council of Research Ministers, just a few days after the Callaghan-Schmidt meeting in Bonn. The Management Committee at JET was relieved and started to implement the urgent tasks which then finally lead to JET’s first plasma in 1983.

(Source: Akten zur auswaertigen Politik der Bundesrepublik Deutschland 1977 (1. Januar bis 30. Juni), S.1410ff)


The Joint European Torus in Culham, England, is still the most developed fusion experiment in the world. It is the only fusion device able to operate with Deuterium-Tritium. In 2016, the United Kingdom decided to leave the European Union and with it to exit the Euratom treaty. The British Government has just signalled major support for the Culham facilities. It will invest 86 million pounds in the nuclear fusion research programme. With this major backing, CCFE’s CEO Ian Chapman is willing to take up JET’s historical heritage and to continue it into the future: “Fusion is entering the delivery era. In the longer term, it means the UK will be at the forefront of developing fusion and bringing cleaner energy to the world.”