UK takes step towards world's first nuclear fusion power station
The UK government took a step closer to creating the planet's inaugural nuclear fusion power station when it launched a scout towards a suitable 100 hectare site with access to the national grid.
The UK Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA) hopes that work on the Spherical Tokamak for Energy Production, or STEP, could begin as early as 2030 with generation by 2040.
Nominations for a suitable site will open in March 2021, with a view to choosing a site by the end of 2022.
Ambitious and pioneering
The government has already committed £200m towards the costs of STEP, which is thought to total £2bn. That's equivalent to the cost of the existing Joint European Torus (JET), a fusion reactor constructed in the UK during the Eighties.
By contrast STEP will be an independent project with a set of unique engineering challenges as a result of its pioneering design. It's a project that could put the UK at the helm of nuclear power by successfully creating a prototype fusion power plant and exporting the idea around the world.
While running costs are expected to be relatively cheap, STEP may need to cut its capital costs by around 80% to compete with fission reactor plants like Hinkley Point C, which is currently under construction.
Net zero targets
Fusion is seen as having a big part to play in the race to net zero emissions by 2050. The challenge is to create a fusion reactor that produces more power than it consumes - fusing hydrogen with helium to replicate the way the sun creates energy requires significant energy to heat and control the hydrogen using huge magnets.
The world's biggest fusion project, ITER in France, is hoping to change the game when it switches on in 2025. The expectation is that 50MW can be transformed into 500MW thus proving that fusion power is viable by demonstrating a net gain.
The ambitions for STEP may be more modest, with an expected net gain of 100MW, but what makes it unique is that it will be connected directly to the electricity grid. This in turn will allow UKAEA to understand how a fusion power plant operates on a daily basis and start the process of commercialising fusion power to deliver clean energy.
Research to delivery
UK Atomic Energy Authority CEO Professor Ian Chapman said STEP proved that fusion energy was no longer a dream but a reality that could lead to a limitless supply of low carbon and sustainable energy.
While scale could be an issue - the expected 100MW output is just a fraction of the 78,000MW generated by power stations in England, Scotland and Wales - but if the technology is proven it could be of enormous benefit as 2050 approaches, according to Richard Howard of Aurora Energy Research.
As part of the government's 10 point plan for a green industrial revolution, the UK could become the first country in the world to commercialise fusion energy technology paving the way for thousands of new and highly skilled jobs in the sector.