UK invests in nuclear fusion

Article by Amanda Doyle

THE UK Government has announced £220m (US$271m) in funding for a nuclear fusion power station to be constructed by 2040, and the UK Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA) will open a new £22m (US$27m) fusion research centre in South Yorkshire in 2020.

Andrea Leadsom, Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, announced the £220m funding package during a visit to the UK Atomic Energy Authority’s Culham Science Centre in Oxfordshire. The Spherical Tokamak for Energy Production (STEP) programme aims to construct a nuclear fusion powerplant by 2040. The design is expected to be completed by UKAEA and partners by 2024.

Leadsom said: “This is a bold and ambitious investment in the energy technology of the future. Nuclear fusion has the potential to be an unlimited clean, safe and carbon-free energy source and we want the first commercially viable machine to be in the UK. This long-term investment will build on the UK’s scientific leadership, driving advancements in materials science, plasma physics and robotics to support new hi-tech jobs and exports.”

However, the Government’s plans have been criticised as being unrealistic. According to New Scientist, Prime Minister Boris Johnson, speaking at the Conservative party conference, said that nuclear fusion research was on the brink of a breakthrough with scientists on the verge of creating miniature commercially viable fusion reactors. Tony Roulstone, Lecturer in Nuclear Engineering at the University of Cambridge, told The Independent that scientists are not claiming that they have evidence fusion will even work, and that claims of commercially viable reactors need to be treated with scepticism.

Thomas Nicholas, a PhD candidate in Plasma Science and Fusion Energy at the University of York, wrote in The Conversation that the next big step for nuclear fusion is the International Tokamak Experimental Reactor (ITER) which is under construction in France. Nicholas highlighted that ITER will be an experiment and isn’t likely to show a net gain in energy until around 2035. This will be followed by a demonstration plant around 2050. “The UK has a solid research plan working towards solving all of these problems, but there isn’t much that can be done to accelerate this timeline,” he wrote.  

Separately, the UKAEA announced £22m in funding for a new fusion energy research facility in Rotherham, South Yorkshire. It will be a collaboration between UAEA, the University of Sheffield Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC), and the Nuclear Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (Nuclear AMRC). The facility will be used to develop and test technologies, and will help UK companies win contracts as part of ITER.

Andrew Storer, CEO of the University of Sheffield Nuclear AMRC, said: “We look forward to working with UKAEA at their new facility to develop manufacturing techniques for fusion power plants, and help UK manufacturers win work in this growing global market.”

Colin Walters, Director of the National Fusion Technology Platform at UKAEA, added: “Momentum is growing in fusion research and we believe the opening of this facility in South Yorkshire represents a practical step towards developing power plants.”

Article by Amanda Doyle

Staff Reporter, The Chemical Engineer

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