World's first fusion reactor will be open in UK by 2040

The UK Government has unveiled ambitious plans to build the world's first working nuclear fusion reactor by as early as 2040.
Christopher McFadden
Mock up of what the new reactor facility may look like.
Mock up of what the new reactor facility may look like.

UK Atomic Energy Authority 

The UK Government has committed to operationalizing the world's first commercial nuclear fusion reactor by 2040. Once complete, the facility (which in theory could offer virtually infinite clean energy) will be constructed in West Burton, Nottinghamshire.

If successful, this would be very fitting for a nation that produced the world's first commercial nuclear fission reactor in the 1950s.

The announcement comes after the UK's Business secretary Jacob Rees Mogg disclosed the location at the UK Conservative Party Conference on Monday.

"The plant will be the first of its kind, built by 2040 and capable of putting energy on the grid,” he announced.

“In doing so, it will prove the commercial viability of fusion energy to the world," he added.

World's first fusion reactor will be open in UK by 2040
Approximate location of the new reactor.

For the STEP (Spherical Tokamak for Energy Production) program to deliver the fusion energy plant, the government has pledged more than £220 million (€252 million). What's more, it will also not be constructed on the virgin ground and instead be built on the site of a to-be-decommissioned coal-fired power station.

Once completed, the project is projected to cost somewhere in the order of £10 billion ($11.42 billion). But, as anyone knows about publically-funded projects of this scale, they rarely come in below budget.

According to the government, the development of the program should also bring more high-tech firms to the UK and generate thousands of high-skilled jobs throughout building and operation.

With a tender anticipated for December, the government started looking for a construction partner for the project in August. Atkins has already been identified as the engineering partner for the project too.

World's first fusion reactor will be open in UK by 2040
Nuclear fusion is the "Holy Grail" of energy production.

Researchers, however, claim that significant obstacles must be addressed before the technology can be used.

How will the plant work?

Theoretically, nuclear fusion could produce approximately four million times as much energy as coal, oil, or gas while producing no carbon emissions.

But a functional commercial plant will need to overcome several logistical challenges, not the least of which is heating significant amounts of gas to a temperature of 180 million degrees Fahrenheit (100 million degrees Celsius).

The International Energy Foundation cautions that developing a commercial reactor will be "challenging and costly."

The STEP design is ambitious, but other reactor designs have frequently encountered problems.

For example, a massive facility is being constructed in the South of France with the cooperation of 35 nations. The ITER project is an experiment to test if nuclear fusion can produce more energy than it consumes, not power for people's homes.

Despite having a scheduled launch date of 2050, it is now going over budget and behind schedule.

“One of the reasons that ITER is late is that it is really, really hard," Professor Ian Chapman, chief executive of the UK Atomic Energy Authority, explained to the BBC.

"What we are doing is fundamentally pushing the barriers of what's known in the technology world,” he added.

However, scientists are making progress. The JET (Joint European Torus) facility in the UK broke its previous record for the amount of energy produced by fusing two types of hydrogen in February of this year.

The experiments generated 11 megawatts of electricity (59 megajoules of energy) over five seconds to boil 60 kettles of water.

What is nuclear fusion anyway?

Nuclear fusion is a scaled-down version of what the Sun does daily. The smashing and merging (fusion) of atoms released massive amounts of energy we can harvest to produce near-infinite power.

World's first fusion reactor will be open in UK by 2040
Nuclear fusion could be a game changer for UK energy.

This process occurs continuously in stars where tonnes of hydrogen atoms collide every millisecond. Heat and light are produced when they shatter their atomic bonds and create heavier helium atoms.

This technique needs to be repeated on Earth, say researchers.

They would have to heat hydrogen gas to more than 100 million degrees.

Since no materials can sustain direct contact at this temperature, the superheated atoms need to be drawn together by strong magnets inside a device called a "tokamak."

A fusion reactor stops if anything goes wrong, so there is no danger of releasing this enormous heat, which is handy.

This is the opposite of existing nuclear power plants that use nuclear fission. This process effectively smashes and rips atomic nuclei apart to release energy, not merge atomic nuclei.

Fission produces energy as fusion does but also creates harmful radioactive byproducts.

Last month, efforts to advance nuclear fission and nuclear fusion received a boost when former prime minister Boris Johnson contributed £700 million to the Sizewell C nuclear reactor on the Suffolk Coast.

The project's ultimate cost, which is being constructed alongside French state-owned enterprise EDF Energy, is anticipated to be £20 billion. In July, Sizewell C received planning permission.

The future is looking very bright indeed for nuclear in the United Kingdom.

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