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Government to invest £220m in nuclear fusion plant concept

Image credit: Siarhei Yurchanka | Dreamstime.com

The UK Government has committed £220m for the conceptual design of a fusion power station - the Spherical Tokamak for Energy Production (STEP) - in a move towards zero-carbon, safe and abundant commercial fusion electricity.

Andrea Leadsom, business, energy and industrial strategy secretary, made the announcement during a visit to the UK Atomic Energy Authority’s (UKAEA) Culham Science Centre in Oxfordshire – the UK’s world-leading fusion research laboratory.

Fusion research aims to copy the process which powers the Sun – the collision of hydrogen atoms to release large amounts of energy – for a new large-scale source of clean energy on Earth. Researchers around the globe are now developing fusion reactors that can turn this into a commercial technology to help satisfy the world’s increasing demand for energy.

STEP Powerplant illustration

Illustration of Spherical Tokamak for Energy Production (STEP) fusion power plant

Image credit: UK Atomic Energy Authority

According to Leadsom, STEP will be an innovative plan for a commercially viable fusion power station, offering the realistic prospect of constructing a powerplant by 2040. Also, UKAEA and industry partners, along with academics, aim to pool their expertise to complete the design by 2024.

“This is a bold and ambitious investment in the energy technology of the future,” said Leadsom. “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.”

The programme, expected to create 300 jobs directly, builds on UKAEA’s expertise in developing so-called ‘spherical tokamaks’, which are compact and efficient fusion devices that are expected to offer an economical route to commercial fusion power. The new MAST Upgrade spherical tokamak experiment is due to start operations at Culham early in 2020, playing a key role in the STEP design.

Fusion test in MAST experiment

Fusion test in MAST experiment

Image credit: UK Atomic Energy Authority

As well as the creation of new jobs, Leadsom added that the spin-outs from the design work are expected to be on a large-scale, both in terms of synergies with other fusion power plant design activities (such as Europe’s ‘DEMO’ prototype power station) and other high-tech industries.

“This long-term investment will build on the UK’s scientific leadership, driving advancements in materials science, plasma physics and robotics to support new high-tech jobs and exports,” he said. 

Professor Ian Chapman, CEO of the UK Atomic Energy Authority added: “The UK has a proud heritage of pioneering developments in fusion research.

“This announcement demonstrates the UK government’s commitment to translating that research and development (R&D) leadership into a working fusion reactor. We are excited to work with our partners to take the next step towards a fusion-powered future.”

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