Inside OpenStar's ambitious attempt to build a nuclear fusion reactor in New Zealand

One of the most ambitious science projects ever attempted in New Zealand is underway as Kiwi scientists from Wellington-based OpenStar Technologies race to develop a nuclear fusion reactor, harnessing the power of our sun here on Earth.

Unlike traditional nuclear fission, which splits atoms apart, fusion combines them together. The process has multiple benefits: it does not produce the same hazardous waste, primarily uses a fuel derived from seawater, cannot cause a meltdown and does not facilitate the creation of nuclear weapons.

While there are plenty of upsides, they come with a catch.

"One of the reasons why it's safe is related to the reason it's so hard," OpenStar CEO Ratu Mataira told Newshub. 

"We have to get this plasma insanely hot to do anything. It's a very small amount of something at very high temperatures… basically if anything goes wrong, it just cools down immediately."

Scientists have been attempting to create commercial nuclear fusion for decades, with the promise of cheap, clean and abundant energy a potential game-changer for both the climate and geopolitics.

"I grew up in the '70s in the US and we had gas shortages at the time and it was very clear that those shortages led to global instability," said Darren Garnier, Director of Plasma Science.

"Being able to have energy independence, being able to produce energy anywhere, not just because it comes out of the ground somewhere. I think it will fundamentally restructure society." 

And while being 'nuclear free' is deeply baked into our culture, Mataira believes fusion isn't against our identity, it's actually in our blood. If OpenStar is successful, New Zealanders will be leading a nuclear power revolution that an iconic Kiwi began.

"I think people can tell the difference between what our country rejected, and what we're building here," says Mataira.

"We're already a world leader in this. Sir Ernest Rutherford is on our $100 dollar bill because he was the father of experimental nuclear physics, he was the first person to split the atom. He ran the lab where the first fusion was done. The types of things we fuse, deuterium and tritium, were named by him. Kiwis were here at the start, we'll be here at the end."

OpenStar aims to have commercial fusion power on our grid by the 2030s - as Maui did in myth, capturing the power of the sun, for the good of all.