In recent weeks, councillors from the Vale of Glamorgan and Pembrokeshire County Council have shown public interest in potentially putting a site forward to the UK Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA) to host an experimental nuclear fusion reactor. Other Councils are also interested in putting sites forward, particularly those with existing nuclear sites.
NFLA have contacted these and other councillors providing detailed information on why Councils should not put any sites forward. NFLA is not surprised councils are interested, given both money and jobs are being suggested, at a time when councils are under a great deal of financial stress after years of austerity and the challenges brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic.
The UKAEA are seeking to develop a Spherical Tokamak for Energy Programme (STEP), and it has been provided with £200 million of initial funding from the UK Government. The UKAEA letter to councils suggested ‘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 former involvement in the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (or ITER) being developed in 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 viable. There are real risks with the STEP programme, such as how it will manage the plasma’s extreme heat. As such, there is an obvious possibility that in neither project will be delivered, particularly given attempts to deliver fusion has been ongoing for decades, and always seems to be 10 – 20 years away from delivery.
The core conclusions of the NFLA briefing provided to the councils include:
- Nuclear fusion, like nuclear fission, still produces significant quantities of radioactive waste.
- Radioactive tritium emissions would be released as part of the fusion process into the environment.
- A large water source for cooling would be required.
- It costs huge sums of money that the public exchequer cannot afford after this pandemic.
- Any local jobs are a long way off. The target is to have a demonstration plant developed around 2040, so any local construction jobs would not take place for at least 15 years. As with fission, in operation, the number of jobs working on such a reactor would be small and highly specialist. Those jobs that come will likely be from staff at the existing site in Oxfordshire moving to the new plant.
- The site requires a large footprint, with over 100 hectares being requested by the UKAEA. This takes away a large amount of land that could be used for other useful activity, such as developing new renewable energy technology, energy storage or smart energy endeavours.
- Given the technology will also not make any energy (if at all) till the late 2040s, it will provide the local council or the country with no low carbon benefit in the next two decades, when tackling the climate emergency is required now.
NFLA also note concerning safety issues have been raised in detail by Dr Daniel Jassby in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists. These 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 to produce weapons-grade plutonium 239, adding to the threat of nuclear weapons proliferation.
- Nuclear fusion reactors consume a large part of the power that they produce, on a scale unknown to any other source of electrical power. (1)
NFLA believe nuclear fusion remains a diversion in UK energy policy, and government support to councils should rather support them in developing decentralised energy – finance is desperately needed to develop a proper energy efficiency programme, energy storage, community energy schemes and smart energy projects. (2)
NFLA Welsh Forum Chair, Councillor Ernie Galsworthy said:
“I can understand why the Vale of Glamorgan and Pembrokeshire Council is considering putting an interest in hosting a nuclear fusion reactor, as any call at present which dangles the prospect of money and jobs will interest any council in these difficult economic times. However, nuclear fusion is an energy mirage. For seven decades it has been worked upon, and it still remains a distant prospect that fusion will ever be developed successfully. The climate emergency though needs to be sorted out now, not in some distant future. Councils should be given support to develop their critical work in mitigating it, not having their time wasted on a project that could well be a white elephant. I call on councillors to not express an interest in these proposals and call instead for more central government support to them in developing decentralised energy.”
Ends – for more information please contact Sean Morris, NFLA Secretary, on 07771 930196.
Notes to Editors:
(1) NFLA New Nuclear Monitor 62, September 2020
(2) NFLA Policy Briefing 207, November 2020