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The chancellor, the terrorists and the tokamak

‚ÄčFormer German chancellor Helmut Schmidt, who died on 10 November at age 96, played an essential but little-known role in the decision to site the large European tokamak JET in Culham, UK.

In the mid-1970s, the parties involved in the project were facing the difficult task of deciding where to build the ground-breaking machine. Four sites were volunteering: Culham in the UK; Garching in Germany; Cadarache in France and Ispra in Italy.
As neither Ispra, nor at the time Cadarache, hosted a fusion research infrastructure that could support the new project, the choice soon narrowed to Culham and Garching.
Political discussions to decide between the two had been dragging on for almost two years when, on 17 October 1977, the conclusion of a tragic event contributed to breaking the deadlock.
Five days earlier, terrorists had hijacked a Frankfurt-bound Lufthansa airliner to eventually land it in Mogadishu, Somalia. Eighty-six passengers were held hostage; one crew member had been killed.
The German chancellor decided to have the airliner stormed by special troops. The successful operation, with no passengers injured, was a political triumph for Schmidt. The German special troops had benefitted from key intelligence and special equipment from the British Special Air Service, who had sent observers to Mogadishu.
The following day, a meeting was scheduled in Bonn between Schmidt and the British Prime Minister James Callaghan. The atmosphere was one of relief and gratefulness. In an obliging gesture, Schmidt accepted to be more accommodating on the JET siting issue.
One week later, the European partners all agreed on building JET at Culham.
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