UK’s Ambitious Grid-Ready Nuclear Fusion by 2030

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Are Reports of Nuclear Fusion Breakthroughs Just What Investors Want to Hear?

Within the domain of nuclear fusion, where ambitious visions aiming to feed power into the grid by the 2030s are exciting investors and environmentalists alike, the challenge of distinguishing between hype and genuine progress becomes ever more difficult. With headlines proclaiming record-breaking achievements and ambitious projects underway, it begs the question: are these reports merely catering to investor expectations, or do they reflect tangible advancements in the field of fusion energy?

While our previous articles, “Nuclear Fusion On The Horizon” and “Fusion For The Future – The Perennial Wait For The Commercialisation Of Nuclear Fusion“, provided valuable insights into the physics of fusion, the recent surge of exciting developments warrants a fresh exploration of this rapidly evolving technology.

In this two-part series, we delve deeper into both domestic and international progressions in fusion. This article specifically focuses on the UK’s fusion industry and government strategy, shedding light on the latest advancements in the field.

Out with the old

The pursuit of fusion power has been a serious endeavour since the 1950s. In Europe, the Joint European Torus project (JET) was established at the United Kingdom’s Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA) Culham site in Oxfordshire in 1984. After four decades of dedicated research and development, latterly overseen by the EUROfusion consortium, experiments at JET concluded in December, marking the beginning of its decommissioning phase. Despite its farewell, JET made a remarkable exit, setting a record by generating 69 megajoules of energy for 5 seconds from just 0.2 milligrams of deuterium-tritium fuel – around 15% more than its previous record! While this may seem modest in energy terms, it’s similar to boiling about 70 kettles of water.

In with the new

The UKAEA’s successor to JET is the Spherical Tokamak for Energy Production (STEP) project. This ambitious initiative aims to construct a prototype reactor by 2040 at the former coal-fired power station at West Burton in Nottinghamshire, and represents a flagship project for the UK government’s fusion strategy.

West Burton power station West Burton A will be the site of the prototype fusion energy power plant.

Another noteworthy effort is being pursued by First Light Fusion; a UK-based company funded privately. Their “ignition” alternative to the tokomak (doughnut) concept has recently reached a significant milestone. This innovative design employs a high-velocity projectile to collide with a lithium fuel target, triggering a fusion reaction. The firm announced it had increased the “standoff distance” the projectile is fired into the fuel by ten times, from 1 to 10 cm, a key step in going from experimental concept to commercial reality where a distance of several metres would be required. First Light Fusion has also collaborated with Sandia National Labs in the US on their “Z Machine,” achieving groundbreaking progress in amplifier technology.

Tokamak Energy, a part US-UK government funded company based in Oxfordshire, is another key player in the UK’s fusion landscape. A spin-off from UKAEA, the company is developing compact spherical tokamaks and high temperature superconducting (HTS) magnets necessary for the tokomak concept. Their ambitious vision includes the deployment of a pilot plant that aims to feed electricity into the grid by nuclear fusion by 2030s, paving the way for 500 MW(e) commercial plants. Their ST40 fusion machine has achieved a plasma ion temperature of 100 million degrees Celsius, six times hotter than the sun and the threshold for commercial fusion. Recent advancements in March 2024 include the development of a new laser measurement technology, crucial for controlling extreme conditions within future fusion power plants. This notable progress has earned Tokamak Energy international recognition, with its US subsidiary securing an award as part of the US Department of Energy’s Fusion Development Program.

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Tokamak Energy Roadmap to deliver commercial Nuclear Fusion by 2030

While these initiatives drive progress within the UK, General Fusion, a privately funded Canadian company, is constructing a fusion machine at the UKAEA Culham campus. This will be a 70% scale zero power facility, expected to be operational by 2026. The concept is Magnetized Target Fusion (MTF) which is a combination of different fusion approaches.

The UK Fusion Strategy

The UK published its first fusion strategy in 2021, followed by a “next stage” release in October 2023. The £650m Fusion Futures Programme, part of this strategy, reflects a total investment of over £1.4 billion in fusion since 2021. This funding includes provisions for a new Fuel Cycle Testing Facility, new R&D facilities, development of the Culham site, and training opportunities for over 2,200 jobs over the next five years.

Additionally, the funding supports a Technology Transfer Hub, aimed at strengthening connections between the UK’s leading research organisations and other programmes worldwide, all with a focus on commercialization.

November 2023 marked a significant milestone with the formation of a strategic partnership between the UK and US on fusion energy collaboration, aimed at accelerating the demonstration and commercialization of fusion. However, the UK has deliberately decided that it “will not associate to Euratom and by extension, the Fusion for Energy Programme”, leading to the creation of the Fusion Futures Programme and withdrawal from the ITER fusion collaboration project.

“The United Kingdom announced in September 2023 that it will no longer pursue an association agreement with Euratom, but that it will seek to continue and enhance its international partnerships, including with ITER. For the present, the ITER Project is not in general concluding new contracts with UK … citizens and companies.”

International progress

In addition to these developments, the US and Japanese governments announced a joint partnership to accelerate the development and commercialization of nuclear fusion, underscoring a global commitment to advancing this transformative energy source.

In our next article, we will look deeper into nuclear fusion by 2030, research progress overseas and explore how fusion compares to advanced fission technologies. Stay tuned for more insights!

Written By John Mathieson

John Mathieson has some 47 years’ experience in the nuclear industry, primarily involving the areas of radioactive waste management and decommissioning. John worked with the International Atomic Energy Agency and the European Commission, participating in expert missions, technical meetings and working groups. He has worked on projects assisting many overseas governments to develop financing, decommissioning and radioactive waste management strategies and infrastructures, including help establish a number of Waste Management Organisations.

John Mathieson has a BSc (Hons) in Physics and an MSc in Radiation and Environmental Protection from the University of Surrey. He is a Member of the Society for Radiological Protection, and is a Board Director and Secretary of Waste Management Symposia Inc. which runs the annual Waste Management conference in Phoenix, USA.

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