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Nuclear Fusion Research in the United Kingdom

Dr John Constable: GWPF Energy Editor

The ludicrous disparity between overly generous renewables subsidy and the barely adequate support for long term nuclear research shows that at some not very distant point we will have to stop pretending that seven billion people can live on sunbeams and the breath of heaven

Starting with a grant of £20 million, the UK government has announced a substantial funding package totalling £220 million for the support of the Spherical Tokamak for Energy Production (STEP) nuclear fusion research project at the Atomic Energy Authority’s Science Centre at Culham in Oxfordshire. 

The aim is to construct a viable generator by 2040, and the present grant will support the delivery of a “conceptual design” towards that end, the design being deliverable in 2024.

Whether this design will eventually lead to a viable generator is beyond prediction – 2040 is so distant as to be a mystery – but that aim is at least an entirely reasonable intention. The physics of nuclear generation is intrinsically promising, the prize being extremely large volumes of dense, high grade energy, in essence permitting us to reach into the extensive remains of the very low entropy states of the early universe. This could actually work, and it would represent a spontaneously attractive step beyond the fossil age. No one would have to coerce the markets to accept energy from these deep nuclear sources; it has the potential of being extremely productive and thus consuming only a small part of the energy it liberated, leaving the vast majority of its substantial output over for the delivery of other human ends. In other words, it would be cheap energy.

The Spherical Tokamak concept is not new, and dates back to the 1980s. Culham already possess a Mega Amp Spherical Tokamak (MAST) facility for research on the concept, and this is currently being upgraded (under the project name of MAST-U) from a 5 MW system to a 12.5 MW system, though it should be emphasised that this system is a net energy consumer not a generator, and its purpose is to permit the better understanding of a fusion system. The principle aims are to deliver predictable net electricity greater than 100 MW, and to explore the exploitation of fusion energy beyond electricity production (one imagines they are thinking here of using high temperatures to produce hydrogen, principally for transport). Alongside these, there are a number of subsidiary technical aims: ensuring self-sufficiency in tritium, developing materials and components capable of surviving in the very demanding conditions of a fusion reactor, and finding what the Culham team describe somewhat ominously as a “viable path to affordable lifecycle costs”, presumably a reference to decommissioning. This is reassuringly low key, and free from exaggeration. It reads like science and engineering, not the latest passionate ten-point crash-course plan for low carbon happiness.

Figure 1: The Mega Amp Spherical Tokamak Upgrade (MAST U). Source: Culham Centre for Fusion Energy.

It is useful to compare the cautious projections and timescale of the STEP project with the wild and implausible propaganda around the renewables industry (for example “Rejoice: Britain’s huge gamble on offshore wind has hit the jackpot”). Unfortunately, ignorance of underlying physical principles makes journalists (and not only journalists) vulnerable to hype, so quite unable to distinguish between the difficulties inherent in any genuinely promising energy project, and the magically easy triumphs claimed by the parts of the renewables industry, triumphs that are obviously too good to be true precisely because they have been so rapid. In energy, as in much else, difficulties can be an index of inherent promise; the fact that the Culham researchers are expecting the control of fusion energy to take decades is a good sign that the reward for a successful solution is vast.

Whether government is the best agent for the funding of such speculative research is certainly questionable, but such grants are at least no more absurd and wasteful than the vast consumer subsidy directed towards the intrinsically poor prospects of renewable energy. In fact, the total support package of £220 million just announced for the Spherical Tokamak is only 2% of the annual £9 billion a year currently spent in the UK alone on income support to renewables.

One might prefer multiple research projects each raising their own funds privately – we want an R100 not an R101 – but given the fact that global market distortions have offered private investors secure and above market rates of return from dispositions of capital in wind and solar, it is extremely unlikely that even very adventurous private capital will look to the long term development of fusion without some sign that government is also willing to become involved. Indeed, if there is any non-governmental appetite for nuclear projects this will tend, quite rationally, to drift towards the more immediately realisable prospects of fission, probably in small and modular systems. But as we know, there isn’t even a great deal of that, since the magnetic attraction of the subsidised green energy sector is crowding out absolutely everything else. As this blog noted in 2017, investment in UK renewables accounted for £52 billion in the period 2010 to 2017, a figure that amounted to 83% of the capital formation in the electricity industry.

Green activists are strident in their calls for government to take serious and drastic action to reduce emissions. But a cool-headed consideration of the facts suggests that the problem is not that governments are dragging their feet, but that they are making the much more serious and foolish mistake of rushing in to commit vast resources to the wrong action and so correspondingly discouraging interest in more promising avenues.

That said, a simple reversal of funding priorities, directing billions to nuclear research while cutting back elsewhere, is not necessarily the right corrective measure. Such heavy funding for STEP, for example, might actually be premature, and come with unwelcome opportunity costs, in the fossil sector say, or in other nuclear technologies. But some sort of correction will have to be made.

The ludicrous disparity between overly generous renewables subsidy and the barely adequate support for long term nuclear research shows that at some not very distant point we will have to stop pretending that seven billion people can live on sunbeams and the breath of heaven, and do something intellectually serious about energy. This won’t come on a plate; we will have to put our minds to the problem.