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The "Kremlin letter" that started it all

-Robert Arnoux

Oleg Aleksandrovitch Lavrentiev (Click to view larger version...)
Oleg Aleksandrovitch Lavrentiev
In the Pantheon of fusion research, many names are inscribed — but not that of Oleg Aleksandrovitch Lavrentiev.

For more than 50 years, the improbable story of this young Russian soldier had laid buried in the secret Soviet Archives. Uncovered in 2000, it was to shed a new light on the beginnings of magnetic fusion research in the USSR.

Young Lavrentiev, who had developed a passion for nuclear physics in secondary school, dreamed of becoming a nuclear scientist. But war disrupted his plans. In 1944 at the age of 18, he volunteered for the Army, fought bravely, rose to junior sergeant and, when the fighting was over, was transferred to the Far East island of Sakhalin.

There he found time for more study by himself, and in January of 1950 decided it was time to write a letter directly to Stalin.

What junior sergeant Lavrentiev had devised in his remote posting were the blueprints of an H bomb and a concept to produce energy through controlled thermonuclear reactions.

Lavrentiev's letter to Stalin never received an answer, but a second one, addressed to the Central Committee, triggered an almost instantaneous chain reaction: a private, "guarded room" was provided for the young soldier who was ordered to write a more detailed description of both his devices; on July 22, 1950, his paper was rushed by secret mail directly to the Central Committee and submitted for review to Andrei Sakharov himself.

Despite some reservations about the solution Lavrentiev had suggested to confine the hot plasma — an "electromagnetic trap" — , Sakharov acknowledged that "the idea of controlled nuclear fusion suggested by [Lavrentiev] was a very important one", and that he had been impressed by "the originality and boldness" of the young sergeant's proposal. "The first vague ideas on magnetic thermal insulation started to form, while reading his letter and writing the referee report."

For some mysterious reason, Oleg Lavrentiev's role in initiating magnetic fusion research was never officially acknowledged. Although he was permitted to enroll at Moscow University and briefly joined the secret Atomic Research Institute headed by Igor Kurchatov, his name was deliberately left out of history books.

Lavrentiev, now 82, was to lead a quiet, almost anonymous life, working for the Kharkov (Ukraine) Institute of Physics and Technology, eventually earning his doctorate in 2004. He recently devised a new concept for a fusion machine ("Elemag") and still attends meetings and conferences. "Between sessions, he loves to play chess," says Academician Valentin Smirnov, "and he wins every game."


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