Commercialising fusion technology31 January 2024
The UK has published an update to its fusion strategy. It aims to leverage its experience hosting the JET facility at Culham and turn the programme definitively towards commercial development.
Above: The JET tokomak is now being decommissioned but learnings from the programme will be applied to commercialisation of fusion technology (Photo credit: EUROfusion)
The UK’s Fusion Centre at UKAEA is “in good health” a recent government assessment concluded. It said the organisation “has effective leadership and mechanisms in place to ensure a high standard of governance and accountability” as it “carries out an important function on behalf of government, delivering the UK’s fusion strategy”. That assessment came at the right time, as UKAEA prepares to set up the UK’s fusion work to deliver a fusion industry, as set out in ‘Towards Fusion Energy 2023: The next stage of the UK’s fusion energy strategy’, published in October.
UK electricity demand is expected to rise from 326 TWh in 2022 (of which 56% was from low-carbon technologies) to 570-630 TWh by 2050. The government says fusion can provide baseload low-carbon power and high-grade heat to decarbonise industrial processes. It says “The UK is uniquely positioned to capitalise on the huge societal and economic opportunities of fusion due to the expertise gained from hosting JET, the unique capabilities developed through its extensive fusion R&D programmes, its growing and dynamic fusion industry and its world leading proportionate, pro-innovation regulatory framework.”
The ‘next stage’ comes two years after the UK published its first fusion energy strategy, which had the double aim of capitalising on the UK’s unique scientific and technical expertise and commercialising the technology.
The government claims “significant progress” in the interim, in a rapidly evolving environment that has brought “considerable investment into a growing number of private sector fusion companies worldwide, often with ambitious timescales and a wide range of technical approaches”. It highlights UK legislation in a process that will lift fusion out of the ‘nuclear’ regulatory environment, advances in the concept design for the Spherical Tokamak for Energy Production (STEP) and stimulus for both the developing UK fusion sector and its supply chain.
This updated strategy retains the three core pillars of international collaboration, scientific and technical expertise and commercialisation that were set out in the original strategy. What is new is a Fusion Futures Programme, “with a focus on supporting fusion sector development and enhancing UK leadership in an increasingly competitive field”.
The three core areas of the Fusion Futures programme are:
- More infrastructure funding for the UK’s fusion cluster around Culham in Oxfordshire. This was launched in 2020 under the Fusion Foundations programme and the community of public organisations and businesses collaborating at Culham attracted over 200 members in a year. Members can access technical facilities, start-up business support and experienced peers.
- A new facility for both the public and private sector to support research and innovation in fusion fuels generation
- A new Fusion Skills Centre that will work with universities, colleges and employers, to provide a pipeline of scientists, engineers and technicians at all career levels.
The government has also promised financial support to “match the ambition of its fusion strategy”. It invested over £700m (US$868m) between 2021/22 and 2024/25 for research programmes and facilities and £126m (US$156m) in 2022. Now it plans an additional £650m (US$806m) up to 2027. The new funding was ringfenced for Euratom, and it has been repurposed after the UK left the Euratom programme. Nevertheless the government says the UK “remains very open to collaboration with the EU and other international partners.”
The UK says it has established its position in the fusion industry and “it is time to look towards addressing broader sector needs” and look at additional technologies as well as the torus deployed at JET, which has been the main focus of past collaborations. Now, “the global fusion market with specialisms in other fusion technologies such as inertial fusion can provide opportunities for the UK”.
It highlights several contrasting projects. They include:
- The STEP programme in Nottinghamshire, which aims to design, develop and build, by 2040, a prototype power plant. The government committed over £240m (US$298m) up to 2024 for the first tranche of STEP and funding will exceed £300m (US$372m) by 2025. It says, STEP is an “ambitious and high-risk programme” that will “play an important role in demonstrating the commercial viability of fusion by integrating and operating industrial-scale fusion systems in a single, energy-producing facility which will galvanise the entire fusion sector in the UK.” To deliver STEP, UK Industrial Fusion Solutions Ltd (UKIFS) is being set up as a delivery body that is due to be fully formed by August 2024.
- First Light Fusion’s inertially confined plasma technology, which has raised £78m (US$97m) in private-sector funding. The design sidesteps many of the major engineering challenges of many other fusion approaches and a prototype power plant expected in the early-to-mid 2030s. The next step towards the power plant is an ignition demonstration, targeted for 2027, which will be in a purpose-built facility at Culham.
The revised strategy included international co-operation, regulation and legal issues. Despite leaving Euratom the UK says “Fusion is a global endeavour and the advantages of international collaboration in R&D are well understood. We want to use international collaboration to accelerate commercialisation and reduce the cost of fusion energy development for the UK and its partners.”
It wants a new route for collaboration:
- To use international R&D collaborations to accelerate the commercialisation of fusion energy.
- To reduce the cost and risk of UK fusion programmes through collaboration, while protecting UK intellectual property and competitive advantage.
- To lead the development of international fusion standards and regulation, to ensure safety and maximise the global potential of fusion whilst creating important market opportunities for the UK.
It is keen that regulation “enables innovation rather than stifles it”. Legislation now under way will mean fusion is regulated by conventional safety and environment regulators (the Health and Safety Executive and Environment Agency). The provisions in the Energy Bill are expected to become law in 2024.
Fusion will also remain outside many arrangements for nuclear liability. The UK will work with international partners on third party liability and on what would happen in the event of an accident, to provide the fusion supply chain with clarity on whether they would be held liable. Safeguards and export controls also have to be clarified, because although fusion waste is not as radiologically active as fission waste, it includes tritium, which is subject to regulation.
The next step domestically for the government is to introduce a National Policy Statement for Fusion Energy, which will streamline the consenting process for STEP and private developers. The government will invest up to £18m (US$22m) to establish a Technology Transfer Hub dedicated to bridging the gap between research and commercial technology, and it will explore the option of a UK fusion investment fund, providing ‘patient capital’ to UK fusion firms and suppliers.
As part of Fusion Futures, the UK will aim to invest up to £200m (US$248m) to build a fuel cycle testing facility to develop technology in Li-based tritium breeder solutions, advanced neutron diagnostics, and integrated tritium production solutions. This facility will be unique and will help tackle a key challenge in the global commercialisation of fusion, create new opportunities for universities and industry both within the UK and internationally. This facility will also make the UK a leader in tritium intellectual property and provide the UK opportunities to export tritium related technologies.
The UKAEA has awarded £7,410,371 (US$9m) funding in a ‘Fusion industry challenges’ initiative that aims to support the UK’s leadership in economic, sustainable, and scalable fusion energy and in particular encourage innovation in developing lithium in an economic, sustainable, and scalable fusion energy fuel cycle.
The topics include technologies that can enrich the proportion of lithium-6. UKAEA says enrichment will be essential to the fuel sustainability of many fusion power designs and, where it is not essential, can add value by boosting tritium production. This will enable the commissioning and re-start of other fusion power plants. It says “Lithium enrichment represents a front-end fuel cycle service that will be demanded by fusion reactor operators around the world”.
It was looking for performance measures that would constitute an improvement over existing lithium enrichment technologies on product quality, economics (production rate, capital cost, energy and resource consumption or value of co-products) and environmental and worker protection (hazards, waste production and obstacles to licensing such as the Minamata Convention).
It also looked for:
- Technologies that can extract tritium from a lithium breeding material and make it available to fuel the ongoing deuterium-tritium reaction.
- Technologies or techniques that can convert lithium from the form available in existing supply chains into a form suitable for an isotopic enrichment process or a form required by the tritium breeding system of a fusion energy plant.
- The potential of recycled lithium, either recycled from other sectors into fusion, or recycled to other sectors after its use in a fusion energy plant.
The University of Bristol was awarded two grants, for £726,383 (US$0.9m) and £1,237,502, (US$1.5m) the University of Edinburgh was awarded £1,497,970 (US$1.9m), the University of Manchester was awarded £1,285,606 (US$1.6m), and Frazer-Nash Consultancy was awarded £1,498,332 (US$1.9m).
IAEA explores the world of commercial fusion
The IAEA has produced its first ‘outlook’ publication on its role in fusion. It reveals some gaps in the legal framework over waste and liability.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has been stepping up its fusion activities. The move is a response to a flood of government initiatives and private sector investments.
The organisation highlighted government initiatives in the USA and the EU (with additional initiatives in Germany), UK and Japan.
In its publication the IAEA says it wants to address fusion energy “in a holistic manner, integrating best practices and lessons learned from successful fission energy generating plants”. It notes that it already covers many fusion research and technology strands — including plasma and materials sciences, fundamental fusion process data, regulatory frameworks, licensing, nuclear safety, nuclear waste management, nuclear liability issues, and economic aspects of nuclear fusion facilities – and an IAEA internal cross-cutting Nuclear Fusion Coordination Committee was established in 2019.
Now the IAEA says it is accelerating fusion research and development and it will work together with countries, other organizations and the growing fusion industry to tackle the scientific and technological challenges and help deliver the talent pipeline, nurture the supply chain, establish best knowledge management practices and engage with the public to make fusion energy a reality.
Waste is a key issue and although the IAEA notes that waste from fusion will be very different from fission waste, it says there are lessons to be learned. “All fusion wastes will need to have a planned pathway for disposal prior to generation. As fusion waste will have more short-lived radioactive elements, different strategies can be considered, including new waste form standards, criteria with less emphasis on long term waste form stability, and delay and decay strategies to reduce the overall waste volume and activity”. Fusion waste has less decay heat generation in the waste and rapid radioactive decay. But “Efforts to recycle and clear are essential for fusion deployment, minimizing the burden associated with radioactive waste for future generations”. Intermediate level waste created during operation may necessitate some level of decay storage, but most wastes would be structural and functional materials.
Most challenging is disposing of tritiated components. It says, “The usual scaling methods based on gamma spectrometry cannot be used for tritium measurement in fusion waste, as correlation of the amounts of tritium with other activated nuclides might not be possible because materials are tritiated by permeation into the materials from other sources. “ Tritium decontamination and recovery techniques that have been developed at the laboratory or pilot scale will need to be demonstrated and commercialized at the process scale. Many low level waste sites, for example, have firm and very low limits on tritium that can be disposed (e.g. 30 ng of T or 107 Bq T/gram of waste). For realistic tritium waste management, these levels may have to be revisited to create a safe disposal location or dedicated tritium management options must be created and implemented.”
On safety, it says, peer review “would appear to provide an effective mechanism for the reporting on the safety of nuclear fusion facilities and the safe management of fusion waste”.
Fusion facilities are currently not covered by the definition of a nuclear installation in instruments in the special regime on civil liability for nuclear damage, even though it was modernised in the 1990s. With commercial use far in the future, it was not seen as necessary. Therefore, potential claims related to radiological damage suffered by third parties from fusion activities would have to be dealt with under general tort law, without limitation, and could be brought against the operator and suppliers.