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Did North Korea really achieve clean fusion?  (Source: Lee Jin-Man/Associated Press)

Inside the reactor core of one of North Korea's nuclear plants  (Source: AP)
Many scientists are discounting that the secretive dictatorship made a true breakthrough

A mystery is emerging on the Korean peninsula.  The nation of North Korea, which has long been suspected of developing nuclear weapons, announced on May 12 that it had achieved clean nuclear fusion and was ready to began rolling out virtually free power.  The claim did not receive that much serious attention because it was simply so unbelievable.

Now the mystery has deepened, with the South Korean government scientists revealing that they detected abnormal levels of radioactive xenon gas -- eight times above the normal background level -- only two days after the fusion announcement.

It seems highly unlikely that the fusion reaction occurred as North Korea claims as fission typically produces large isotopes, while fusion uses small atoms like deuterium (a hydrogen isotope).  Granted, many scientists have theorized that fission can be tied to fusion to create hybrid reactors and such reactors 
would likely be capable of producing heavy isotopes.

Professor David Hinde, who is the department head of nuclear physics at The Australian National University says the release is more likely to have come from a traditional fission device.  He states, "It would have to be man-generated unless one came up with some very unusual alternative scenario. The lifetime of those radioactive xenon isotopes, they're not terribly long. So it could not be anything that came naturally, I would say.  Heavy xenon isotopes could be a signature of a fission device of some kind."

The easiest explanation would be that North Korea conducted a nuclear weapons test.  It revealed in 2008 that it has several nuclear weapons stockpiled.  However, such a test would have created seismic activity and South Korean officials detected no corresponding seismic events.

Xenon is colorless, odorless, and largely inert noble gas thats found in minute levels in the atmosphere.  The noble gases xenon and krypton are typically used to detect nuclear activity.  The levels of gas detected by South Korea are a clear marker of nuclear activity, but do not pose a health risk to citizens.

North Korea 
did conduct nuclear weapons tests in 2006, which were detected.  It received international condemnation for these tests and UN sanctions.

For now, though, it's unclear exactly what happened in the mysterious nation of North Korea.  While it's highly unlikely the nation has discovered the holy grail of renewable energy, something that has eluded the best researchers in the U.S. and abroad, at this point there are no definitive answers.





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