Science

UK seeks site for world’s first commercial fusion power plant

UK seeks site for world’s firs...
Artist's concept of the STEP fusion reactor
Artist's concept of the STEP fusion reactor
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Artist's concept of the STEP fusion reactor
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Artist's concept of the STEP fusion reactor

The UK government is looking for a site on which to build the world's first prototype commercial fusion power plant. With the goal of being operational by 2040, the Spherical Tokamak for Energy Production (STEP) will be designed to provide energy and create a hub for fusion energy and associated industries. If you think that all sounds very ambitious, you're right.

Fusion energy has been the holy grail of scientists and engineers since the 1940s, and about as elusive. In the 1950s, there were predictions that fusion power plants would come on line in 25 years and since then they've always been 25 years in the future. The problem is that while a controlled fusion reaction is easy enough to produce in the laboratory, making it into a practical power source has proven extremely difficult.

All nuclear power stations of today operate on the concept of fission, where heavy atoms like uranium and plutonium are split into smaller atoms to release energy. Fusion works in the opposite direction. It's based on taking isotopes of hydrogen and subjecting them to temperatures 10 times those found in the core of the Sun while compressing them inside a magnetic field, causing them to fuse into a helium atom while releasing much more energy than the fission reaction.

The problem is that, so far, it takes much more energy to start the reaction than it releases. This is unfortunate to say the least, because a practical fusion reactor, even a very inefficient one, would revolutionize civilization.

Instead of polluting fossil fuels, problematic nuclear fission, or intermittent sources like solar and wind, a fusion reactor would run on hydrogen, which is the most abundant element in the universe. It would be an inherently safe source of energy that has zero emissions, produces only low-level nuclear wastes in relatively small quantities, and could be scaled up to not only replace almost every other static source, but would usher in an age of energy abundance that would be difficult to imagine.

Presented as part of the UK government's new environmental policy, the STEP competition is seeking proposals from communities and regions by the end of March 2021. These proposals would spell out how the applicant community could support such a project in terms of available land; mixture of social, commercial, and technical conditions; water supply; and national grid connections.

At present, STEP is in the concept stage with a £222 million (US$296 million) allocation awarded for design work though the UK Atomic Energy Authority, plus another £184 million (US$248 million) to 2025 for new fusion facilities, infrastructure, and apprenticeships at the Culham Science Centre in Oxfordshire. The concept design is expected to be complete by 2024, followed by a detailed engineering design to be written while the necessary legal permissions and consents are secured by 2032, with the completed plant going online by 2040 – an ambitious plan by the government's own admission, but a laudable one, too.

"STEP is about moving from research and development to delivery," says UK Atomic Energy Authority CEO Professor Ian Chapman. "It will prove that fusion is not a far-off dream, but a dawning reality with the UK leading the commercial development of fusion power and positioning itself as a pioneer in sustainable fusion energy.

"To achieve this ambitious goal will require all the ingenuity and application of the UK’s science and engineering industry, and we look forward to working with industrial partners in the years ahead, not just to invest, but also to support the technical evolution of the program.

"We are confident that working together with partners in the UK and around the world will enable the UK to bring a revolutionary technology to market."

Source: UK Government

11 comments
CarolynFarstrider
Great. Sounds wonderful. If it's really so safe, and so unobjectionable on other grounds, then let's have it in Westminster, or Chelsea, next door to the houses of the good and the great who govern the UK!
FB36
Some people still may think "Why humanity needs fusion power? Why not just use solar & wind power etc?"

IMHO, humanity definitely/absolutely needs fusion power, because it could really take humanity to a whole new level (which cannot ever be done using solar & wind power etc)!

For example, titanium is an extremely durable & strong & light material & Earth has plenty of it, but AFAIK, it requires so much electricity to mine/process!
Imagine, if we had so much (clean) electricity, we could build all kinds of land/air/sea vehicles, buildings, roads, even whole cities from titanium!

Imagine, we could build a global permanent water pipeline network (& do seawater desalinization) & provide plenty water to everywhere on Earth (for agriculture & forests etc)!

Imagine, very tall poles w/ very powerful infrared heater lamps (etc) on top!
Imagine, using many of them in cities/towns to turn winters to springs/summers!
And/or, using many of them in agricultural fields to grow any hot climate (even tropical) crops/trees, even in coldest places on Earth!

& no doubt, many new techs would become reality, once we have enough electricity power for them!
(For example, consider how computers & internet are used in many ways today, which were pretty much unimaginable to their inventors!)

Also, yes, fusion research was going on for many decades w/o success but humanity is very clearly keeps learning more about all kinds of fusion possibilities!
It should not be any surprise to anybody that such civilization transformative tech requires a lot of research & cost & hard work!
Hellem
What are they talking about? Seem to have missed evolving green technologies that are cheaper then any of the existing solutions. This totally disregards environmental impact but totally serves the existing energy lobbyists.
bwana4swahili
"they've always been 25 years in the future" And at present this still seems to be the future of fusion energy. And to think the Sun makes it look so easy...

But if mankind wants essentially unlimited energy, fusion energy HAS to be attained. Solar and wind are simply not up to the task!!
aksdad
"Seem to have missed evolving green technologies that are cheaper then any of the existing solutions." Not when you figure in the low capacity factor of wind and solar and the power storage required to make them reliable. Currently they require fossil fuel, nuclear, or hydroelectric plants to back them up. "But if mankind wants essentially unlimited energy, fusion energy HAS to be attained." Nah. We already have uranium-fueled nuclear fission plants that will do the job. Now that uranium extraction from seawater has been proven and demonstrated to be cost-effective there's enough uranium to provide the world's energy needs for a billion years. It's essentially "renewable". And nuclear fission power plants are by far the most efficient and safest power plants. With new designs making them even safer and more efficient at burning and recycling all the fuel, it's real technology available now, that can provide power 24/7 and the technology isn't always tantalizingly 25 years in the future.
fen
They cant make a profit from the oil they have, they are leaving the EU, their universities wont have EU funding, wont collaborate on EU funded research. This is just them trying to pretend that life outside the EU is going to be cheap limitless energy, a nirvana, with limitless possibilities, but its all just spin.
rgorman
Since 1960 the standard for fusion power has been 30 years from now. Around 1990 MIT did a study of the concepts available for fusion power. The least expensive concept using liquid berylium fluoride salt as the inner wall was more than 4 times as expensive as a conventional uranium reactor system. In addition the world's supply of berylium was only enough for 4 power plants. I have yet to see a concept that conquers the "first wall problem" so fusion power plants are hardly "clean".
The present cost of wind turbine power is much less than any other system, and solar cell electric power is getting less and less expensive.
In 1977 it cost just as much to transport electrical power for 1800 km as to generate the power. Solar cells because they can be used in local microgrids avoid most of the transmission cost.
I agree with Carolyn Farstrider about locating it locating it next to the "good and great who govern"
Douglas Bennett Rogers
The 25 year prediction is a lot more solid now since there is an actual power plant platform (ITER) that is mostly built.
Eddy
Bring it on so we can go back to proper warm white tungsten lighting, I'm sick of these LED imposters that start to flicker after a while, probably due to over-voltage with all this rooftop solar.
guzmanchinky
I hope I live to see this become commonplace.