The Nuclear Free Local Authorities (NFLA) publishes today a background briefing and suggested response for English Councils to a UK Atomic Agency (UKAEA) request to consider hosting an experimental nuclear fusion reactor. The UKAEA hopes it may deliver a commercially operating reactor design between 2040 and 2050. NFLA conclude that Councils should decline to take part in this site selection process, planned for the autumn. (1)
Vast resources have been spent for over 7 decades trying to make nuclear fusion work at a commercial level. With the UK nuclear industry struggling to get the finance and approval for new nuclear fission reactors at Hinkley Point, Sizewell and Bradwell, as well as advocating for ‘small’ modular nuclear fission reactors, the push for nuclear fusion appears to be another part of the UK Government’s pro-nuclear policy.
The UKAEA letter relates to a Spherical Tokamak for Energy Programme (STEP) that it has provided with £200 million of initial funding. The project seeks to develop a new experimental tokamak fusion reactor in addition to existing work that is currently done at the UKAEA facility in Culham, Oxfordshire. The UKAEA letter to English Councils suggest ‘billions’ of pounds will be invested in the project with an aim to help deliver nuclear fusion in the 2040s or 2050s.
The STEP project is an ambitious programme that moves on from the UK Government’s involvement (as a member of the European Union and Euratom Treaty) in the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (or ITER) being developed in southern France. Unlike the ITER project, the STEP project’s goal is seeking to go a stage further by creating a plant that will harness electricity from fusion. However, ITER needs to succeed for nuclear scientists to understand whether such a prototype commercial plant as STEP is really viable. There are real risks with the STEP programme, such as how it will manage the plasma’s extreme heat.
The core conclusions of the NFLA briefing are:
- Nuclear fusion, like nuclear fission, still produces significant quantities of radioactive waste.
- Radioactive tritium emissions would be released as part of the fusion process.
- A large water source for cooling would be required.
- It costs huge sums of money that the public exchequer cannot afford.
- Any delivery of it will come too late to seriously tackle the effects of climate change.
Other concerns, that have been raised in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists also include:
- In experiments to date, the energy input required to produce the temperatures and pressures that enable significant fusion reactions in hydrogen isotopes has far exceeded the fusion energy generated.
- The burning of neutron-rich isotopes produces harmful byproducts such as radiation damage to structures, radioactive waste, the need for biological shielding, and the potential for the production of weapons-grade plutonium 239, adding to the threat of nuclear weapons proliferation.
- They consume a large part of the power that they produce, on a scale unknown to any other source of electrical power.
All of the above means that any fusion reactor will face outsized operating costs. This is without the need for increased amounts of skilled nuclear regulatory staff, security experts for monitoring safeguard issues and skilled personnel for radioactive waste management. Additional skilled personnel will be required to operate a fusion reactor’s more complex subsystems including cryogenics, tritium processing, plasma heating equipment, and elaborate diagnostics. (2)
As a result of these issues, NFLA recommend English Councils decline the UKAEA’s offer. There is a much more urgent and pressing need to build up low carbon renewable energy alternatives now to deal with a climate emergency where the next 20 years of activity are critical. Fusion, if it ever occurs in a commercial fashion, will come too late to make any positive impact on the climate crisis.
NFLA Steering Committee and English Forum Chair, Councillor David Blackburn said:
“This NFLA briefing provides an important summary of the huge technical challenges that still remain in developing nuclear fusion. Whilst it has remained for decades the dream of many in the nuclear sector, its realisation is much more difficult to achieve than it was for fission reactors, which themselves have many failings, most notably around the creation of large amounts of radioactive waste. With the likely billions of pounds required to make this happen and two or three decades further of development needed, it is an expensive diversion from what UK energy policy should be centred on – developing a wide renewable energy mix coupled with energy efficiency, energy storage and smart energy projects.”
Ends – for more information please contact Sean Morris, NFLA Secretary, on 00 44 (0)161 234 3244.
Notes for Editors:
(2) See Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, April 19th, 2017
and Dr Michael Hittmar, ETH Zurich, ‘Status and progress of the ITER Plasma Physics Experiment’, July 10th, 2019