UK’s promising future in fusion energy

To find out more about the state of fusion energy in the UK and to learn why the sector is hopeful about this low carbon energy source, Pamela Largue spoke to Tim Bestwick, Chief Technology Officer at UK Atomic Energy Authority.

Bestwick has been with the authority for just over three years and has a great interest in how public sector big science works constructively with private sector business on new technology opportunities. And fusion – the process that powers the sun and stars – really does fit that bill.

Tim Bestwick. Credit: UKAEA

What is the status of fusion in the UK?

Currently, there is a lot of exciting activity in fusion energy. Within UKAEA, which is the UK national organization that leads on public R&D in fusion and has done for many decades, we have some important, world-leading experimental work underway.

Here at the Culham Science Centre, which is our main center near Oxford, we have two major fusion experiments. One is called MAST, which stands for Mega Amp Spherical Tokamak. The other is JET, the Joint European Torus and currently the world’s largest operating fusion experiment. They are both tokamaks, so magnetically confined fusion experiments. At the moment JET is running experiments with deuterium tritium fuel. This is an experimental campaign with real fusion fuel creating real fusion conditions, which is really exciting.

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A number of dynamic private sector fusion companies are developing, with two of them based near UKAEA. Tokamak Energy is a tokamak-based fusion company, and First Light Fusion is an inertial confinement fusion company. Recently, there was an announcement that General Fusion, headquartered in Vancouver, Canada was going to build its next fusion demonstration plant at Culham, joining these other two businesses here in Oxford.

The fusion sector is certainly accelerating and growing quickly. Universities and research centers are also looking to increase their activities in fusion research. One example is the Hartree Center – working with UKAEA to apply the very latest techniques in computer science to fusion design challenges.

Do you think that the government is placing more focus on fusion as a viable energy source?

The first fusion experiments were conducted in the 50s and, for much of the time since, most fusion activity has predominantly happened in a small number of national labs. The Joint European Torus is a European collaboration and is been one of the world’s most substantial fusion experiments.

When ITER is turned on in a few years’ time this will then become the largest fusion experiment ever – an international collaboration that’s funded through government support. Now, these publicly funded government collaborations are being added to by a growing cohort of increasingly well-funded private sector companies. The fusion energy landscape is rapidly evolving and changing.

And specifically in the UK public sector?

In the UK, government support for fusion energy is very positive. UK funding has accelerated quite substantially, including for the UKAEA’s STEP Programme (Spherical Tokamak for Energy Production), which aims to produce a prototype power-producing fusion energy plant.

MAST Upgrade. Image credit: EUROfusion

Significantly, the UK Government has recently published both a national fusion strategy and green paper on fusion regulation. For everybody in fusion, the regulatory environment is vital because it is an important aspect of designing and operating the plant, and that regulatory environment will have a significant impact on cost and other implications. The consultation for the green paper closes on Christmas Eve.

The UK Government proposes a regulatory environment that continues to fall under the Environment Agency and the Health and Safety Executive, the current regulators. UKAEA is uncompromising in its commitment to safety; focusing on designing risk out of the fusion energy process and minimizing waste legacy.

This national strategy on fusion, the national consultation on regulation and the increasing financial commitments are clear evidence that the UK Government is enthusiastic about supporting the development of fusion energy.

How does fusion get to become commercially viable?

This is a big question. Fusion is very technically demanding. It’s a set of big challenges that have not all been fully solved. Nevertheless, we believe these challenges will be solved and fusion energy will be a safe and sustainable part of the world’s future low carbon energy supply.

Deploying fusion in a practical sense requires both developing fusion systems that function as long-term power production facilities – not just experimental systems – and secondly scaling up and rolling out on a large scale. Deploying at scale also has its challenges – history shows that rolling out new forms of energy generation technology takes time.

Despite these challenges, we are focused on the massive opportunity that fusion energy represents. It’s the opportunity to provide a new source of energy with many appealing attributes, particularly as we see with stark clarity the need to produce abundant low carbon energy and take fossil fuels out of the energy supply system.

The world has tackled big challenges before and overcome them, and I’m sure we will deliver fusion energy. But it will require widespread collaboration between the private and public sectors, a collaborative mobilizing of global talent to make sure we deliver this in a timely way.

What are your thoughts around the role of nuclear or fusion in the energy mix?

We all know that we need to decarbonize the energy supply. Fusion can be an important part of the future energy mix, not to displace renewables but to complement them. I don’t think there will be a single solution to decarbonize the energy system.

Do you believe the world is warming to the idea of nuclear power?

It seems almost inevitable to me that we will always have a supply mix of various sorts of generation. I’m sure there will be renewables in that mix. In the UK, we’re blessed with fantastic offshore wind assets that are really making a difference.

The pressures to decarbonize energy in general means that electricity consumption is likely to increase quite markedly – with greater numbers of electric cars and decarbonized heating systems etc., we might expect electricity demand to go up. And a society without dependable power can’t function properly – I think we tend to take this for granted.

My personal view is that it’s quite difficult to see how we can decarbonize and meet increasing demand without nuclear. Perhaps not true for all geographies, but in general that kind of baseload generating capacity is essential, and nuclear is a proven way of providing baseload without generating carbon at the point of generation.

Any concluding thoughts to share with our readers?

Realizing fusion energy is one of the biggest scientific and engineering challenges of them all, but the rewards for success will be enormous.

Currently, the main issues to be addressed are the technical challenges. I’m confident this can be done, but only if we have the scale of resources and if there’s widespread collaboration.

Gratifyingly, I think that is happening – private and public sectors are increasingly working together with one goal to bring this ultimate energy to fruition as quickly as possible and power the planet sustainably into the future.

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