UK selects site for prototype fusion energy plant, says it will replace coal-fired facility

Environment

While there is a great deal of excitement about fusion, there are huge challenges too.
Jose A. Bernat Bacete | Moment | Getty Images

The U.K. government has chosen the location for a prototype fusion energy plant, with the country’s Energy Secretary, Jacob Rees-Mogg, describing the technology as “a great hope.”

In a statement Monday, authorities said the STEP facility would be based at the West Burton power station, in Nottinghamshire, England. The aim is to build STEP, which stands for Spherical Tokamak for Energy Production, by 2040.

The government said it would provide £220 million (around $249.6 million) of funding for the STEP project’s first phase, in which the U.K. Atomic Energy Authority will ready a concept design by 2024.

Fusion is not the same as fission, which is used in today’s nuclear power plants. The U.S. Department of Energy describes fusion as occurring “when two atoms slam together to form a heavier atom, like when two hydrogen atoms fuse to form one helium atom.”

The DOE adds that this “is the same process that powers the sun and creates huge amounts of energy—several times greater than fission. It also doesn’t produce highly radioactive fission products.”

In a speech at the Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham, Rees-Mogg, who is the U.K.’s secretary of state for business, energy and industrial strategy, sought to highlight the potential of fusion.

“Fusion is a great hope, it is a potential ace up our sleeve,” he said. “It offers unparalleled potential for clean power production, promising a future of inexhaustible energy that could unshackle us from hydrocarbons and make us truly self-sufficient and secure,” he went on to add.

While there is a great deal of excitement about fusion, there are huge challenges too. The DOE says fusion reactions are “difficult to sustain for long periods of time” due to what it says are “the tremendous amount of pressure and temperature needed to join the nuclei together.”

In his speech, Rees-Mogg made a similar point when he acknowledged that the technological hurdles were “big.” Nevertheless, he was bullish about the U.K.’s prospects going forward.

“We will build the U.K.’s first prototype fusion energy plant in Nottinghamshire, replacing the West Burton coal-fired power station with a beacon of bountiful green energy,” he said.

“The plant will be the first of its kind, built by 2040 and capable of putting energy on the grid. And in doing so, it will prove the commercial viability of fusion energy to the world.”

West Burton A is a coal-fired power station that started generation in 1966. Generation at the facility is slated to end in March 2023.

Rees-Mogg’s optimism was not shared by everyone. “It’s been a long-running joke that nuclear fusion is only a few decades away – we’ve heard this for the best part of 70 years,” Mike Childs, Friends of the Earth’s head of science, policy and research, said in a statement sent to CNBC.

“So anyone suggesting that we’ll have a nuclear fusion plant producing affordable energy in the UK by 2040 is dreaming,” Childs added.

“There’s nothing wrong with the government funding future technologies, but this should only happen once existing climate solutions have been fully funded, including investment in cheap, clean renewable energy and insulating the UK’s inefficient, heat-leaking homes.”

Monday’s announcement was, however, welcomed by the nuclear industry. Tom Greatrex, who is chief executive of the Nuclear Industry Association, said the news represented “a huge moment for fusion energy in the UK.” 

“As we look to moving away from fossil fuels towards net zero, it is important that we find new ways of meeting our growing energy demands,” he later added.

“Fusion offers the opportunity to produce virtually limitless energy that will power low-carbon economies across the world. The UK can play a central role in making that a reality.”

The past few years have seen a number of significant developments in the fusion energy sector.

On Dec. 21, 2021, for example, engineers and scientists from the Eurofusion consortium were able to produce 59 megajoules of heat energy from fusion across a period of five seconds.

This surpassed a previous record from 1997, when 22 megajoules of heat energy was generated. The results were achieved at the Joint European Torus, or JET, facility in Oxfordshire, U.K.

Co-funded by the European Commission, Eurofusion is made up of thousands of engineers, scientists, students and other experts from throughout Europe.

The amount of energy produced by the experiment was not huge, however, with reports at the time stating that 59 megajoules could boil around 60 kettles of water.

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