Nuclear fusion concept art

UK to build its first prototype fusion energy plant by 2040

Image credit: Dreamstime

West Burton in North Nottinghamshire has been selected as the future home for the Spherical Tokamak for Energy Production (STEP) prototype fusion energy plant.

A prototype nuclear fusion power plant - possibly the world's first prototype commercial nuclear reactor - will be built in the United Kingdom by 2040, business secretary Jacob Rees-Mogg has said.

Rees-Mogg told the Conservative Party conference that the fusion energy plant - part of the £220m STEP programme led by the UK Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA) - would replace the West Burton coal-fired power station in Nottinghamshire, which was set to be closed this year.

“Over the decades we have established ourselves as pioneers in fusion science and as a country our capabilities to surmount these obstacles is unparalleled and I am delighted to make an announcement of a vital step in that mission," Rees-Mogg said. “We will build the UK’s first prototype fusion energy plant in Nottinghamshire, replacing the West Burton coal-fired power station with a beacon of bountiful green energy.

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

Fusion is based on the same physical reactions that power the Sun and stars, which create energy by forcing atoms together. It is the opposite of standard nuclear reactors which rely on fission, breaking atoms apart.

Fusion is a potential source of almost limitless clean energy, but is currently only carried out in experiments as it has proven difficult to harness. However, amid rising energy prices and a cost-of-living crisis, it could become a safe and clean alternative source of energy that might become available in the not-too-distant future.

According to the business secretary, the fusion energy industry could be "worth billions of pounds to the UK economy” with the plant leading the way for the country to “design, manufacture and export the first fleet of fusion plants” around the world. 

A spokesman for the UK Atomic Energy Authority said: “We are really pleased to confirm the West Burton site, in North Nottinghamshire, has been selected as the future home for the STEP prototype fusion energy plant. STEP will be a major infrastructure project that will provide a significant catalyst to the supply chain across the UK, as well as demonstrating [that] fusion energy can provide net energy to the grid.

“We look forward to working with stakeholders and communities across the region to develop our ambitious plans and realise broader social and economic benefits in the months and years ahead.”

The West Burton site has been chosen from a shortlist of five possible locations for the plant. The other sites the government had considered included Ardeer, in North Ayrshire; Goole, in East Riding of Yorkshire; Moorside, in Cumbria; Ratcliffe-on-Soar, in Nottinghamshire, and Severn Edge, in Gloucestershire. 

According to the Nuclear Industry Association, STEP is expected to help develop a local and regional supply chain and the creation of long-term, skilled jobs. 

Tom Greatrex, chief executive of the Nuclear Industry Association trade body, added: “This is a huge moment for fusion energy in the UK. The STEP project will bring real benefits, including good jobs, opportunities for local companies and an ambition to drive skills and investment in the community.

“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. 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.”

Brendan Clarke-Smith, Conservative MP for Bassetlaw, the constituency where the power station is based, called the news a "real game-changer".

Speaking to the BBC, Clarke-Smith said: "We're talking billions in investment, we're talking about something that is really globally significant coming to north Nottinghamshire and what that will do for jobs, investment, really it blows everything else out of the water.

"This is not a small investment, this is like having Toyota or Rolls-Royce coming to the constituency, maybe even bigger than that."

Funding for commercial fusion projects has more than doubled in the last 12 months, according to a recently published report by the Fusion Industry Association, The Global Fusion Industry in 2022.

In March this year, then-prime minister Boris Johnson said that now was the time “to make a series of big new bets” on nuclear power as part of efforts to eliminate the UK’s reliance on Russian oil imports. A few months later, the Labour Party echoed this message in a letter sent to then-energy secretary (now chancellor) Kwasi Kwarteng, stating that the UK should “seize the opportunities for investment and energy security” that is afforded by investment in nuclear energy. 

In 2020, the UK government committed £220m for the conceptual design of a fusion power station as part of efforts to move the UK towards a zero-carbon energy network. In January, the UK Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA) asked residents in five areas, including Ayrshire, to provide feedback on potential plans to construct one of the prototype nuclear fusion power plants.

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