UK looks to fusion

26 November 2019

Nuclear fusion research is taking a step forward in the UK with new government funding and plans to launch a dedicated fusion energy research facility next year.

The UK Government has announced £220m ($271m) over the next four years towards the design of a commercially viable fusion power station. The Spherical Tokamak for Energy Production (Step) will be based on “spherical” tokamak technology currently being pioneered at the UK Atomic Energy Agency’s (UKAEA’s) Culham Centre for Fusion Energy (CCFE). The design effort – led by the CCFE – will involve over 300 people and be completed in 2024. The technical objectives of Step are: to deliver predictable net electricity greater than 100MW; to innovate to exploit fusion energy beyond electricity production; to ensure tritium self-sufficiency; to qualify materials and components under appropriate fusion conditions; and to develop a viable path to affordable lifecycle costs. In August, the UK government announced £20 million for the first year, launching Step as a collaborative programme involving UKAEA, universities and other organisations.

The CCFE hosts the UK’s and Europe’s foremost fusion research facilities – the Joint European Torus (Jet) and the Mega Ampere Spherical Tokamak (Mast). Jet, the largest operating fusion project in the world, is funded by the European Union (EU) and is the only device that can use a deuterium-tritium fuel mix of the kind that is expected to be used for commercial fusion power.

In March, a contract extension for Jet was signed by the UK and the European Commission (EC), which will secure at least €100m ($110m) in additional inward investment from the EU over the next two years. The new contract guaranteed its operations until the end of 2020. It also meant Jet could conduct a series of key fusion tests planned for 2020, seen as a ‘dress rehearsal’ for International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (Iter) under construction at Cadarache, France, based on similar technology. The €20 billion Iter project is more than 60% complete and has a completion date of 2025.

Since 1999, the UK has also been pioneering the use of spherical tokamaks through Mast. Mast has just completed a £45m upgrade to Mast-U which will also allow scientists to study plasma conditions relevant to Iter. CCFE secured an additional £21m from the European Fusion Research Consortium and the UK’s Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council to further enhance the upgrade. This will include doubling the neutral beam injection into the plasma from 5MW with Mast-U to 10MW, and should be completed around 2022. The design for Step will take account of the results from Mast-U.

The UK’s National Fusion Technology Platform (NFTP), announced earlier this year, is set to open in 2020, with funding of £86 million from UKAEA. NFTP’s main objectives are to identify suitable reactor materials able to withstand the heat and radiation; and to develop a process to produce one of the fuels for fusion, tritium, as part of the fusion reaction. The results will feed into Iter.

In September, UKAEA said it would open a £22 million fusion energy research facility in Rotherham in 2020 to engage industry in fusion energy development to put the UK in a strong position to commercialise nuclear fusion in the years ahead. The new facility will foster increased collaboration with research organisations including the University of Sheffield Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC), and the Nuclear Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (NAMRC). It will be sited at the Advanced Manufacturing Park, alongside Rolls-Royce, McLaren Automotive and both the AMRC and NAMRC. It will be funded as part of the Government’s Nuclear Sector Deal delivered through the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. An additional £2 million of investment will come from Sheffield City Region’s Local Growth Fund.

The role of the facility will be to develop and test joining technologies for fusion materials and components — for example novel metals and ceramics. These will then be tested and evaluated under conditions simulating the inside of a fusion reactor (including high heat flux, in-vacuum, and strong magnetic fields). UKAEA said the site would help UK companies win contracts as part of Iter and will enable technology development for the first nuclear fusion power plants.

UKAEA also confirmed in October that it had completed a project designed to establish some of the basic operating parameters of another fusion reactor. The purpose of the project was to establish the viability of an innovative ‘fusion island’ concept which is being developed by First Light Fusion, spun-out of the University of Oxford. After more than six months of investigation, researchers at UKAEA concluded that, fundamentally, the concept is viable. First Light is planning to demonstrate fusion by the end of 2019. The company plans to demonstrate gain — generating more energy than is required to create fusion reactions — by 2024. To date, no fusion energy project has achieved this.

Fusion test in Mast experiment (Credit: CCFE)
Illustration of spherical tokamak power plant concept (Credit: CCFE)
The UKAEA announces opening of Yorkshire fusion energy research facility - left to right: Liz Surrey (Head of Technology, UKAEA); Peter Henry (Regional Director, Harworth); Sarah Champion (MP for Rotherham); Andrew Storer (Chief Executive, Nuclear AMRC)

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