New body to deliver UK’s fusion ambitions

STEP building cutaway. Image: UKAEA

The UK government has announced UK Industrial Fusion Solutions as the new body to deliver the country’s fusion programme.

Alongside the formation of the new body, the government announced that a prototype plant would be delivered at a former coalfield site at West Burton in the north of England.

The so-called Spherical Tokamak for Energy Production (STEP) plant would be constructed by 2040 as a demonstration of the ability for fusion energy to generate electricity for the grid.

The approach for the STEP is magnetic confinement fusion, which requires strong magnetic fields to confine the plasma and with spherical tokamaks found to offer performance advantages over the early doughnut shaped tokamaks.

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“Fusion energy now has the potential to transform our world for the better by harnessing the same process powering the sun to provide cheap, abundant, low-carbon energy across the world,” said science and innovation minister George Freeman, announcing the new body.

“We are moving to turn fusion from cutting edge science into a billion-pound clean energy industry to create thousands of jobs across the UK, grow exports and drive regeneration of this former coalfield site through a fusion innovation cluster in Nottinghamshire.”

While for the first time fusion has been demonstrated to deliver a net energy gain and the jury is out on which of the numerous initiatives under way, both public and private, will be first to the market, there are still significant technical hurdles remaining.

The STEP programme is set up to address these hurdles and the government anticipates paving the way to the commercialisation of fusion and the potential development of a fleet of future plants around the world.

For example, Oxford based Tokamak Energy, among the UK’s leaders in the spherical tokamak approach, is embarking on test programmes of materials for the tritium breeder blanket and of new high temperature superconducting magnets to ensure that they can meet the extreme conditions under which fusion occurs.

“The learnings will be a key catalyst for delivering the global deployment of compact, low-cost spherical tokamak power plants,” promises Tokamak Energy CEO Chris Kelsall of its new Demo4 facility.

The UK was an early leader in fusion research with the Joint European Torus programme at Culham now entering its 40th year of operation.

The UKAEA states that the STEP prototype will have many of the features of a fully operational power station, including infrastructure and associated research and development facilities, and that it is likely to be a delivery project of comparable scale and value to a major operational power station.

As part of the project, a STEP skills centre will be developed at West Burton for local workforce skills development.

The formation of the new Industrial Fusion Solutions body will take place over the next 18 months.

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