fusion energy reactor

Government proposes ‘non-nuclear’ regulation for fusion

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The UK government has outlined its plans for regulating the future rollout of fusion energy in a Fusion Green Paper published by the new science minister. The paper proposes that nuclear fusion would be governed through an “innovation-friendly” approach not the same as that used for mature civil nuclear technology.

Nuclear fusion technology, which scientists often joke is “always 50 years away”, generates electricity from energy released as lighter nuclei fuse to form heavier nuclei. Vast temperatures and pressures are required to start nuclear fusion and maintain it for long enough to produce useful amounts of energy, meaning huge engineering challenges such as confinement must be overcome first.

Nuclear fusion research is part of the UK government’s long-term decarbonisation plan, along with the expansion of new nuclear fission technologies, such as advanced modular reactors. Now, the government has announced plans to be the first to legislate for the safe and effective rollout of fusion energy, outlined in a Fusion Green Paper.

Due to the expected low hazard of fusion power, it proposes the continuation of a “non-nuclear” regulatory approach as laid out in regulatory consultation proposals published today. This will allow for the safe and efficient rollout of the technology through innovation-friendly regulation.

“Fusion energy could be the ultimate power of the future – low carbon, safe, and sustainable – and we want the UK to continue to lead the world as we work to unlock its potential and build back greener,” said the science minister George Freeman.

“By putting in place the crucial foundations we’re setting out today, we will ensure the UK is uniquely placed to capitalise on this innovative and revolutionary energy source in the years ahead – helping to tackle climate change and reduce our dependence on unreliable fossil fuels at the same time.”

The Fusion Strategy published alongside the green paper sets out the UK’s ambitions to commercialise nuclear fusion. The strategy aims for the UK to build a world-leading fusion industry capable of exporting fusion technology in future decades.

The government hopes to demonstrate the commercial viability of fusion by building a prototype fusion power plant, the Spherical Tokamak for Energy Production (STEP) by 2040, which it hopes will be the world’s first. China is also reportedly hoping to get an experimental nuclear fusion reactor running by 2040.

The ambitious ITER project, which is hosted by the EU, aims to build a nuclear fusion reactor to support the largest magnetic confinement plasma physics experiment. It is under construction and expected to generate first plasma by 2025. The successor to the ITER could be the first fusion reactor to provide clean, commercially viable, essentially unlimited, zero-carbon electricity. A nuclear fusion plant is expected to cost approximately the same as a nuclear fission plant to build, but with no risk of a meltdown and no long-term complications with waste disposal.

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