Experts welcome UK plans to build fusion demonstrator
THE UK Government has published its strategy on how the country will become a commercial leader in nuclear fusion power, and selected five potential sites for its prototype plant. It has also released a consultation document on how to regulate nuclear fusion and is calling for experts in safety and environmental protection to provide feedback.
Nuclear fusion involves forcing together nuclei – mimicking the processes that drive the sun – and harnessing the energy that is released. The potential benefits are huge. The technology would produce carbon-free, baseload power without creating the long-lived radioactive waste that comes out of conventional fission plants. Yet there are significant technological hurdles that scientists and engineers must overcome to demonstrate fusion is viable, and this is the focus of both national efforts, including the JET research programme in the UK, and the international collaboration – ITER – taking place in France.
At the heart of the UK’s fusion strategy are two goals: to demonstrate the commercial viability of fusion by building a prototype fusion plant in the UK that puts energy on the grid; and for the UK to build a world-leading fusion industry that can export the resulting technology around the world.
Researchers have been working for decades to develop and prove fusion technology. To date, fusion technology has not produced net energy; fusion experiments have required more energy being put in to fuse nuclei than has then come out. There is an often-heard quip about fusion energy: it is always 30 years from commercial reality. Or 20 years. Or 50 years. Regardless, the accusation is that we’re not getting any closer.
“I think we’re at a real change-over point,” said fusion researcher Sandy Knowles, who is Associate Professor in Nuclear Materials at the University of Birmingham and coedited the UK Fusion Materials Roadmap for the UK Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA). “You have ITER in France that is going to be coming online between 2025-2030 with justified predictions it will have 500 MW of output energy from 50 MW of input heat.”
The design of the ITER facility is being informed by experiments conducted at the UK’s JET facility at the Culham Centre near Oxford. In October, the UK announced its prototype fusion energy plant – known as Spherical Tokamak for Energy Production (STEP) – will be built in either Ardeer in Scotland or in England in Goole, Moorside, Ratcliffe-on-Soar, or Severn Edge. It has set a target for the plant to put energy on the grid by 2040.
“It’s ambitious but that’s what we need,” Sandy said. “I have to be objective. It’s not zero risk. We need some high-risk, high return investments in our energy portfolio.”
There are significant technological hurdles that UK scientists and engineers are working on to overcome, including process development and materials selection. Among these, the JET facility is working out how to confine fusion fuel in a plasma at temperatures ten times hotter than the sun. The MAST-Upgrade project is developing an exhaust system suited to compact fusion plants. The so-called “Super-X divertor” will reduce heat and power loads from particles leaving the plasma which would allow the divertor’s components to last longer. There is also the H3AT centre set to open in 2023 that will study how to process, store and recycle tritium. This includes developing the tritium breeding facilities that fusion power plant designs will need to produce the isotopes required for their plasma.
Asked what opportunities the Government’s strategy promises for chemical and process engineers, Neil Blundell, Energy Subject Area Lead for the IChemE Learned Society Committee and Committee member of the Nuclear Technology Special Interest Group (NTSIG), said there are many opportunities for the community: “As with any type of power generator, it is not only the operation that promises engineering challenges and employment. There is also the cycle of processes that are needed to support it. In the case of fusion reactors, it is clear that not only hydrogen, deuterium and tritium require manufacturing but also much work is needed in areas like separation and recovery of precious and important elements from waste.”
Science Minister George Freeman said: “This paper sets out the UK Government’s strategy to move from a fusion science superpower to a fusion industry superpower. With this plan, the UK hopes to lead the world on the commercialisation and deployment of this potentially world-changing technology.”
The Government wants to create fusion technology clusters in the UK and develop the supply chains and skills base for UK firms to compete in the future global market for nuclear fusion technology. In July, Canada’s General Fusion entered an agreement with the UK Atomic Energy Authority to build a fusion demonstration plant at Culham.
Sandy said: “We’re doing very well to capitalise on a leading position we have in fusion on the plasma physics and materials engineering. I think the UK is positioning itself as one of, if not, the leading country on fusion. We hold JET which is the highest performing fusion device in the world at the moment. I think we’re going to go from strength to strength. There seems to be a lot of will from Government to make fusion a moonshot project for the UK.”
Asked how it might be strengthened, Blundell said: “It is good to see a Government supported strategy. Equally valuable would be extension to details of the vast support industries anticipated for delivering this ambitious fusion reactor challenge. This would enable students considering a future in chemical engineering, graduates, early years chemical engineers, and even our members looking to transition from their existing careers to understand the potential career paths and opportunities available to them.”
To support these ambitions and create markets for UK companies, the Government wants the UK to lead the development of international fusion standards and regulation. In a statement announcing its consultation on fusion regulations, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) said: “Due to the expected low hazard of fusion power, the Government is proposing the continuation of a proportionate ‘non-nuclear’ regulatory approach…This will allow for the safe and efficient rollout of the technology through innovation-friendly regulation.”
Blundell said: “It is of course essential to consult on whether the existing regulatory framework for fusion will be appropriate and ‘fit for purpose’ over the next 20-30 years, and whether an alternative approach and/or regulator may be more appropriate than those in place now.”
The Government has called on experts in industry and academia to give their views on regulations covering health and safety, environmental protection and security and safeguards for radioactive material. The consultation closes on 24 December and is available here: https://bit.ly/3E2TrUX.
Blundell said the NT SIG welcomes the ambitious strategy and that it aligns well with IChemE’s climate change position statement and the SIG’s climate change action plan. IChemE has invited member communities to put together action plans ahead of COP26, and these are being prepared for publication as we go to press. As part of these, Blundell said the SIG, within its climate change action plan, has committed to an active programme of member engagement on how nuclear technology can support the push for net zero. This includes novel and modular reactor power systems as well, highlighting how cogeneration can provide heat and power directly to users like hydrogen generators, petrochemical and desalination plants.
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