Experts welcome UK plans to build a fusion demonstrator
THE UK government has released its strategy on how the country will become a market leader in nuclear fusion energy and has selected five potential sites for its prototype plant. It has also released a consultation paper on how to regulate nuclear fusion and calls on experts in safety and environmental protection for comments.
Nuclear fusion involves forcing nuclei together – mimicking the processes that drive the sun – and harnessing the energy that is released. The potential benefits are enormous. The technology would produce base energy without carbon without creating the long-lived radioactive waste that comes out of conventional fission plants. Yet there are significant technological hurdles that scientists and engineers must overcome to demonstrate that fusion is viable, and this is at the center of national efforts, including the JET research program in the UK, and the international collaboration – ITER – in progress in France.
At the heart of the UK fusion strategy are two goals: to demonstrate the commercial viability of fusion by building a prototype fusion plant in the UK that puts energy on the grid; and for the UK to build a leading fusion industry that can export the resulting technology around the world.
Build a prototype
Researchers have worked for decades to develop and prove fusion technology. To date, fusion technology has not produced net energy; fusion experiments required more energy to fuse the nuclei than it came out. There’s an often-heard joke about fusion energy: it’s still 30 years from commercial reality. Or 20 years. Or 50 years old. Either way, the accusation is that we are not getting closer.
“I think we are at a real turning point,” said Sandy Knowles, fusion researcher, associate professor of nuclear materials at the University of Birmingham and co-editor of the UK’s Fusion Materials Roadmap for the British Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA). “You have ITER in France which will be brought online between 2025-2030 with justified forecasts, it will have 500 MW of output energy from 50 MW of input heat.”
The design of the ITER facility is based on experiments carried out at the UK JET facility at the Culham Center near Oxford. In October, the UK announced that its prototype fusion power plant – known as the Spherical Tokamak for Power Generation (STEP) – would be built in Ardeer in Scotland or in England in Goole, Moorside, Ratcliffe-on-Soar or Severn Edge. He set a target for the plant to put energy on the grid by 2040.
âIt’s ambitious, but it’s what we need,â said Sandy. âI have to be objective. It is not zero risk. We need high risk, high return investments in our energy portfolio. “
British scientists and engineers are struggling to overcome significant technological hurdles, including process development and material selection. Among these, the JET facility is studying how to confine fusion fuel in a plasma at temperatures ten times higher than those of the sun. The MAST-Upgrade project is developing an exhaust system suitable for compact smelters. The âSuper-X divertorâ will reduce the heat and electricity charges of particles leaving the plasma, which would allow the divertor components to last longer. There is also the H3AT center which will open its doors in 2023 and which will study how to process, store and recycle tritium. This includes the development of tritium selection facilities that fusion power plants will need to produce the isotopes needed for their plasma.
STEP: Artist’s impression of the demonstration plant
Asked about the opportunities that the government’s strategy promises for chemical and process engineers, Neil Blundell, head of energy for the IChemE Learned Society committee and member of the technology special interest group committee nuclear (NTSIG), said there are many opportunities for the community: âAs with any type of generator set, it is not just the operation that promises engineering and employment challenges. There is also the cycle of processes that are needed to support it. In the case of fusion reactors, it is clear that not only hydrogen, deuterium and tritium require manufacturing, but also a lot of work is required in processes. areas such as separation and recovery of valuable and important elements of waste.
Science Minister George Freeman said: âThis document presents the UK government’s strategy to move from a fusion science superpower to a fusion industry superpower. With this plan, the UK hopes to be the world leader in the commercialization and deployment of this potentially revolutionary technology. “
The government wants to create fusion technology hubs in the UK and develop the supply chains and skills base for UK companies to compete in the future global nuclear fusion technology market. In July, Canada’s General Fusion reached an agreement with the UK Atomic Energy Authority to build a fusion demonstration plant in Culham.
Sandy said, âWe are doing very well to capitalize on our leadership position in fusion in the field of plasma physics and materials engineering. I think the UK is positioned as one, if not the leading country when it comes to mergers. We own JET, which is currently the most efficient fusion device in the world. I think we will get better and better. There seems to be a lot of will on the part of the government to make the merger an ambitious project for the UK. “
Asked how it could be strengthened, Blundell said: âIt’s good to see a government backed strategy. Equally useful would be expanding the details of the vast support industries planned to meet this ambitious fusion reactor challenge. This would allow students considering a future in chemical engineering, graduates, early childhood chemical engineers, and even our members who wish to transition from their current careers to understand potential career paths and opportunities. their.
To support these ambitions and create markets for UK businesses, the government wants the UK to lead the development of international merger standards and regulations. In a statement announcing its consultation on fusion regulations, the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) said: âDue to the expected low risk of fusion energy, the government proposes the pursuit of proportionate ânon-nuclearâ regulation. approachâ¦ This will allow the safe and efficient deployment of technology through regulation conducive to innovation.
Blundell said: “It is of course essential to consult on whether the existing regulatory framework for the merger will be appropriate and ‘fit for purpose’ over the next 20 to 30 years, and whether an alternative approach and / or a regulator may be more appropriate than those in place now.
The government has asked experts from industry and academia for their views on regulations regarding health and safety, environmental protection and security, and safeguards for radioactive materials. The consultation ends on December 24 and is available here: https://bit.ly/3E2TruX.
Blundell said the NT GIS welcomes the ambitious strategy and that it aligns well with IChemE’s position statement on climate change and the GIS action plan on climate change. IChemE has invited member communities to develop action plans ahead of COP26, and these are being prepared for publication as we go to press. As part of these, Blundell said that SIG, as part of its climate change action plan, has embarked on an active program of member engagement on how nuclear technology can support the push towards net zero. It also includes new and modular reactor power systems, highlighting how cogeneration can deliver heat and electricity directly to users, such as hydrogen generators, petrochemical plants and desalination plants.