Britain will have a prototype nuclear fusion power station generating electricity for the grid in less than two decades, the government has pledged. The new Spherical Tokamak for Energy Production (STEP) project will be built by the UK Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA) on the site of one of the UK’s last coal-burning power stations, West Burton, which EDF Energy is due to shut down next April. STEP’s power plant is expected to be smaller than other fusion energy programmes, such as?the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) or several projects in North America, which the scientists say could help reduce costs. While many fusion reactors, or tokamaks, are built in the shape of a torus, or ring doughnut, a spherical tokomak is often described as being shaped like an apple with its core removed. Last year, UKAEA's Mega Amp Spherical Tokamak (MASK) upgrade experiment at the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy in Oxfordshire delivered a major fusion breakthrough, reducing the temperature from that of a blowtorch down to heat levels seen in car engines. Business Secretary Jacob Rees-Mogg announced the aims for the STEP project in a speech at the Conservative Party conference, where he acknowledged that while there high hopes of commercial fusion its progress is being impeded by “big” technological obstacles. “We will build the UK's first prototype fusion energy plant in Nottinghamshire, replacing the West Burton coal-fired power station with a beacon of bountiful green energy. “The plant will be the first of its kind, built by 2040 and capable of putting energy on the grid. And in doing so it will prove the commercial viability of fusion energy to the world.” This may be behind the industry curve, however, with a survey of the industry last year from the Fusion Industry Association and the UK Atomic Energy Authority finding that most private fusion companies expect the technology to be supplying electricity to the grid in the 2030s. Unlimited clean power The fascination is clear for both scientists and governments, as nuclear fusion energy could provide Earth with unlimited clean power. Unlike existing nuclear power stations, which use nuclear fission – atom splitting in other words – fusion would theoretically come with no long-lived waste, no meltdown risk, and an abundance of cheap raw materials. Looking to replicate the same process by which the sun provides its heat and light, developments on Earth have so far required more energy (creating the required heat and pressure) to perform the fusion reaction than the energy produced. Considerable steps have been made in recent years towards the promised land of lower temperatures, known as ‘cold fusion’. Many of these are being made in the UK. Using a different approach to that seen in the MAST experiment and other more traditional fusion methods, Oxford University spin-out First Light Fusion achieved fusion with a technology it says should be much cheaper than rivals. Its creation of fusion energy was independently validated by the UKAEA, which also authenticated another major achievement by scientists at Culham in February, where the record for energy generated by fusion power was doubled, delivering 59 megajoules for five seconds from the Joint European Torus (JET) facility. Investments in nuclear fusion have surged in the past year, with US$2.8bn (£2.5bn) poured into the sector globally compared to about US$2bn a decade ago. Next STEPs For the first phase of the STEP facility, the UKAEA aims to produce a ‘concept design’ by 2024, outlining the power plant and how each of the major systems will be designed. In Phase 2, the design will be developed through detailed engineering design, while all consents and permissions to build the plant will be sought. Construction of the prototype power plant will begin in phase 3, expected in the early 2030s, targeting completion around 2040. UKAEA said STEP will include “much of the infrastructure and facilities seen on any operational power station” and is “likely to be a delivery project of comparable scale and value to a major operational power station”. Ben Bradley, Conservative MP for Mansfield and leader of Nottinghamshire County Council, told local media it was “quite poetic in some ways," as the areas of North Nottinghamshire where West Burton is situated “used to power the country and keep the lights on and now we're going to do that in a future-facing carbon free way”. New-cular in North America As so often, things are promised to be bigger better and faster in America. US-based TAE Technologies is one of the longest-established companies in the fusion space, a specialist in hydrogen-boron fusion. With backing from Chevron, Google and Sumitomo Corporation, TAE said in July that it has secured the investment needed to fund construction of its new Copernicus reactor in California to demonstrate the viability of achieving net energy generation with its "advanced beam-driven field-reversed configuration". It says this is "the penultimate step" on its path to commercialising clean fusion power, where it aims to deliver energy to the power grid within the next decade. Rival commercial companies include Canadas' General Fusion, backed by Microsoft and Jeff Bezos, which is building a new fusion demonstration plant at Culham to work on its Magnetized Target Fusion technology. Once operational, which is expected by 2025, successful demonstrations should pave the way for a planned commercial pilot plant, which it is currently pencilling in for “the early 2030s”. US-based Helion raised US$500mln, with fabled Silicon Valley investor Sam Altman describing the technology as “the most promising approach to fusion I’ve seen”. The money is to enable Helion to build its Polaris fusion electricity demonstration generator, which it aims to demonstrate net electricity from fusion in 2024 and enable its long-term goal of producing electricity with no carbon emissions for 1 cent per kilowatt-hour.
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