On November 21, a celebration was held at JET to commemorate the life and work of Donato Palumbo, involving personal recollections from former colleagues, friends and family.

picture of Donato Palumbo

In 1958, in the heady times following the declassification of fusion research, theoretical physicist Donato Palumbo was asked to set up a European fusion program within Euratom. He was not enthusiastic because he thought the task was too hard, but took the job anyway. Little did he know that this task would engage him for the next thirty years, and his influence would propel Europe to the forefront of fusion research.

“Without him, there would be no European Fusion Programme.” said Catherine Cesarsky, Chair of the Consultative Committee for Euratom – Fusion (CCE-FU). Umberto Finzi, the European Commission’s Coordinator for Energy and the Environment echoed these sentiments “Palumbo had scientific skills, but also a lot of political skills and diplomatic sensitivity, which made possible JET, and is making possible ITER at the world level.”

One of Professor Palumbo’s many innovations was to design a unique relationship between the fusion laboratories and the Commission, in the form of Associations with a shared funding model and preferential support for projects. In addition, he understood the need for a large joint venture following the successful results of the Russian tokamak T3 in 1968. Thus he set up JET as a joint undertaking between the Commission and the Euratom member states. Former ITER director Robert Aymar stressed the importance of Palumbo’s structure: “The fusion programme was protected from pressure from governments and not directly managed by the Commission”.

To mastermind such an agreement in the “intricate environment” of the European politics was an achievement. “He was a master of bargaining” said Catherine Cesarsky. During the official opening of JET in 1984, Professor Palumbo was famously asked by Queen Elizabeth how he had managed to achieve an agreement for JET. “By disobeying orders” was his reply. This response did not endear him to administrators, who threatened to fire him if he repeated the stunt. Professor Palumbo was undaunted, as he was no stranger to conflict; he recalled at times encountering “considerable difficulty, even hostility”. However his colleagues recalled that his “unflinching confidence was a great help to keep the morale high.”

Romano Toschi, former director of NET, recalled Palumbo’s confidence throughout the early eighties. Palumbo established a design team to work on an experiment to follow JET, known as NET. After the Gorbachev-Reagan meeting put fusion back on the international agenda in 1985, Palumbo’s perseverance came to fruition; the expertise developed by the NET team put them at the forefront of design for the future device, now named ITER.

Reflecting on Donato Palumbo’s legacy, EFDA Leader Francesco Romanelli called for similar dedication, vision and courage today. “We need to adapt our organisation to the challenges of the ITER era. We need again the longer term view of Palumbo, and courage in all of us to take the necessary steps.”

20 years of fusion power
A celebration of the twentieth anniversary of the preliminary tritium experiment – the first generation of fusion power ever – followed the Palumbo commemoration. More than fifty staff attended in person, and a number of Associations connected via video to hear an inspirational talk by the session leader for the first PTE experiments, Alan Gibson. Dr Gibson recreated the euphoric mood of the time with excerpts from the JET log, personal stories and media reports from the time, such as one naming JET staff as “Our Fusion Heroes!” Impromptu recollections from people who were there in 1991 concluded the afternoon, and the crowd spilled into the foyer for afternoon tea optimistic about future tritium experiments.

Phil Dooley, EFDA