UK One Step Closer to Building Nuclear Fusion Power Station

The UK is looking for a construction site for STEP, the world's first nuclear fusion power station.
Chris Young
An artist's rendering of the STEP nuclear fusion power station.UKAEA

The UK has taken a large step towards building the world's first nuclear fusion power station by announcing it is searching for a 100-plus hectare site that gives easy access to its electricity grid.

However, as New Scientist reports, there are still major hurdles to overcome before the plant could start generating power.


A 'hugely ambitious program'

UK Prime minister Boris Johnson last year committed an extra £200 million ($268M) towards the project, which is known as the Spherical Tokamak for Energy Production (STEP). The government body overseeing STEP, the UK Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA), hopes the plant could be operating by 2040, with construction expected to begin around 2030.

"STEP is a hugely ambitious program: to be at the forefront, to be the first in the world to produce a prototype fusion power plant, and then export that round the world," says Ian Chapman from the UKAEA.

The plant could be key to the UK hitting its target of net zero emissions by 2050. However, fusion faces big hurdles if it is to meet the huge energy demands it is expected to reach. 

Reproducing the sun's energy production

Essentially, fusion reactors are aimed at reproducing the way the sun makes energy, by fusing hydrogen together to make helium. This requires huge magnets that are powered by a significant amount of energy, meaning that no fusion reactor has yet produced more energy than it consumed.

As New Scientist points out, that might change in 2025, when the world's biggest fusion project, ITER in France, is powered up. The team behind the French reactor hope it will turn 50 megawatts of power into 500MW and, in doing so, prove that a net gain is possible.

STEP's power output goal is lower at a net gain of 100MW. However, unlike ITER, it will be connected to the electricity grid, allowing researchers to understand how a fusion plant can be connected to a country's system.

UKAEA is planning to pick a site for STEP by the end of 2022. The upcoming years will play an important crucial in the future of energy and will decide whether nuclear fusion is adopted by humanity or not.

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