UK’s nuclear fusion quest takes major step forward

Iter explain how the nuclear fusion project will begin its assembly

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The UK’s quest to generate nuclear fusion, which has been described as a “holy grail” source of energy that could one day generate limitless power, has taken a major step forward after two key organisations struck a deal to develop a next-generation reactor. Tokamak Energy and the UK’s Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA) have struck a five-year deal to develop a brand new fusion reactor, which Britain scrambles to slash its reliance on fossil fuels and ramp up clean energy sources. As the UK remains tangled in a crippling energy crisis that has seen bills go up as a result of soaring gas prices, triggered by Russia’s war in Ukraine and Vladimir Putin’s gas cuts, the urgent need to ramp up homegrown energy has become more evident than ever before. 

Nuclear fusion, which experts say could generate almost “limitless clean energy”, could play a huge role in helping Britain race to net zero, and could slash its reliance on foreign suppliers, which we have seen has caused bills to shoot up. 

But so far, scientists have been unable to crack the code, getting a fusion reaction to generate more energy than it uses up in the process. But hope is on the horizon with Tokamak Energy and UKAEA’s joint venture. 

It will involve joint technology development, shared use of equipment and facilities and “associated secondment of staff between the two organisations”. 

Chris Kelsall, the CEO of Tokamak Energy, said: “We are in a race against time to phase out the world’s reliance on fossil fuels and aim to deliver fusion as a clean, sustainable, low cost and globally available energy source. Tokamak Energy and UKAEA jointly recognise the importance of collaboration to accelerate the delivery of commercial fusion. We welcome the opportunity to progress knowledge, skill sharing and joint development opportunities with UKAEA, further boosting the UK’s world-leading fusion cluster.”

Both teams already have spherical Tokamak devices, which is a type of plasma reaction device that uses magnetism to contain energy. This means it can reach the incredibly hot temperatures needed to replicate the heat in the sun, which is how a fusion reaction happens.

Tokamak Energy’s ST40 device even recently achieved a plasma temperature of 100 million degrees Celsius, the threshold required for commercial fusion energy, and signalled a major step forward for the quest to generate the energy source for actual use. 

Professor Ian Chapman, UKAEA CEO, said: “Fusion has great potential to deliver almost limitless clean energy for future generations. This new agreement with Tokamak Energy will benefit both organisations and help advance our collective ambitions, because together we are stronger.

“Fusion presents an exciting opportunity for the UK and we’re proud our ground-breaking work here continues to drive innovation and progress as part of a thriving cluster.”

Tokamak Energy is also poised to unveil its next device, which will be the world’s first world’ high-field spherical tokamak, which is due to be demonstrated in the mid-202s. It is also set to demonstrate multiple advanced technologies that are needed for fusion energy and will help the company make ground on the design for its first commercial fusion power pilot plant.

The plan is set to demonstrate the capability to deliver net electricity to the grid. Known as STEP, the Government has earmarked West Burton in Nottinghamshire as the site for the UK’s first nuclear fusion plant. 

Plans for the plant, which is set to begin a lengthy planning and build process, were unveiled by Business Secretary Jacob Rees-Mogg earlier this month. 

He said at the Conservative Party conference in Birmingham on October 3: “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.

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“We will build the UK’s first prototype fusion energy plan. The plant will be the first of its kind, built by 2040, and capable of putting energy on the grid and in doing so it will prove the commercial viability of fusion energy to the world.”

The Government has pledged to provide £220million worth of cash for the first phase of STEP, which will see UKAEA come up with a concept design by 2024.

Tom Greatrex, Chief Executive of the Nuclear Industry Association, has hailed the news as a major win for the UK. He said: “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.”

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