Footage shows mesmerising view inside a fusion reactor
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A fully-working fusion plant promises to usher in a green revolution, by providing virtually limitless energy without destroying the environment. Fusion reactors mimic the inner workings of the Sun, by fusing lighter atoms into heavier elements and releasing tremendous amounts of energy in the process. But there is a catch – scientists have so far been unable to sustain the process without burning through more energy than the reactors produce.
Many are, however, hopeful the UK’s proposed prototype fusion plant could be the first to achieve the milestone.
Towards this goal five sites have been shortlisted for the ambitious project.
These include Moorside in Cumbria, Severn Edge in Gloucestershire, Ardeer in North Ayrshire, Ratcliffe-on-Sonar in Nottinghamshire and Goole in Yorkshire.
The UK is already home to the world’s biggest and most advanced fusion reactor, the experimental Joint European Torus or JET in Oxfordshire.
JET was the world’s first device to achieve controlled fusion with deuterium and tritium.
However, the reactor is set to be surpassed by the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) in France, which is being built as a proof-of-concept for large-scale, carbon-free fusion power.
A final decision on the UK’s new prototype reactor is to be made in 2022 with the aim of going operational in 2040.
The Government announced plans to invest in nuclear fusion in 2019, with £200million put towards the Spherical Tokamak for Energy Production (STEP).
Not only does STEP aim to generate net electricity, but the site will also demonstrate how fusion plants are maintained and sustained.
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The Government believes the project will create thousands of high-skilled jobs during the construction phase as well as during operation.
Earlier this year, the UK Atomic Energy Authority published its list of potential homes for the plant after nominations closed in March.
A total of 15 sites were put forward, including Dounreay, Bradwell, Milford Haven and West Burton.
George Freeman, Minister for Science, Research and Innovation said: “Fusion energy has the potential to be a truly revolutionary and inexhaustible energy source that can help us reduce our dependence on unreliable fossil fuels and tackle climate change.
“By building the foundations to unlock the power of fusion energy, including the location of the UK’s first prototype fusion power plant, we are positioning the UK as a global leader in this safe and sustainable power source.”
Scientists have been toying with fusion energy since the Fifties and though many breakthroughs have been made, star power is still out of reach.
The biggest obstacle is the imbalance in the input/output of energy.
In simple terms, fusion reactors burn through more energy to sustain and contain their nuclear reactions than they output.
JET, for example, produces about 16 megawatts of energy for every 24 that it consumes.
The development of powerful superconductors and magnets is expected to advance the technology by helping to contain the host plasma – a superheated gas of free-flowing particles – within.
Paul Methven, STEP Programme Director, said: “The shortlisting of sites is a significant step for the programme as it helps bring this challenging, long-term endeavour to life in the here and now.
“It also increases our focus as we push on with design and delivery of what we hope is the world’s first fusion power plant prototype.
“Through the next phase of assessment, we look forward to working with the shortlisted sites and local communities to gain a more in-depth understanding of the socio-economic, commercial and technical conditions associated with each site, before we make our final recommendations to the Secretary of State in 2022.”
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