Select Committee on Science and Technology Fourth Report


181. Nuclear fusion is the fusing of hydrogen atoms to release energy, a process similar to that which powers the sun and other stars. Harnessing this power offers the potential of an almost limitless source of energy for future generations but it also presents some formidable scientific and engineering challenges. It involves heating the hydrogen atoms to very high temperatures (100 million°C and above), creating a state called a plasma, confining the plasma and devising materials to withstand the conditions in the reactor. The most established form of fusion reactor is a Russian design called the tokamak.

182. Almost all of the UK's fusion research is undertaken at UKAEA's facilities at Culham in Oxfordshire. Here, the UK hosts JET (Joint European Torus), the world's largest fusion reactor, which is funded from the European Commission's EURATOM programme and direct from EU Member States. Britain's domestic research programme, headed by the MAST (Mega Amp Spherical Tokamak), also takes place at Culham. The CCLRC conducts some fusion research in collaboration with RIKEN in Japan. Its evidence draws attention to its work on lasers and their application to fusion.[305]

183. The current annual UK Government spend on fusion for 2002-03 is £14.63 million of which just under £6 million is the premium paid to host JET. In the 2002 Spending Review UKAEA was given an extra £1 million a year, although this will fund increased costs at JET for enhancements and for essential maintenance.[306] The EURATOM programme is funded by the EU, but the UK's annual contribution to the EURATOM fusion funding at Culham can be calculated at £23.5 million. From 2001-02, the DTI's fusion budget was transferred to the EPSRC following a review. This is discussed in paragraph 28 above.

184. JET is an experimental machine, operating for a few seconds at a time, and represents the main-line in fusion development. A demonstration project called ITER (International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor), essentially a scaled up version of JET, is the next stage in fusion development and will take over from JET and other major programmes. ITER is a worldwide collaboration, the partners being the EU, Japan, Russia, Canada, China, the USA and possibly South Korea. The Americans had pulled out of the project, citing the cost of the project but announced that they were re-entering negotiations to rejoin on 30 January 2003.[307] The site has yet to be established but there are bids from Canada, Japan and two from the EU (Spain and France), with a European site most likely. JET is scheduled to close at the end of 2004 but we understand that it is very likely that it will continue for a further year. Beyond 2005 its lifetime depends on the rate of progress with ITER and the amount of money for fusion in the Framework 7 budget.

185. The focus of the UK's national programme is MAST, which represents a more long-term research programme and has an annual budget of £7.6 million out of a budget of £12 for the UK programme. MAST's spherical shape has some advantages over JET and a commercial reactor may well turn out to be based on MAST technology. It also has a role as training facility. EURATOM contributes £3 million a year to the national programme. The Government funds being spent on fusion are large compared with any other energy technology, even taking account of the hosting fee for JET. At the same time, the UK is spending much less on fusion research than Italy, France and Germany and only a fraction of that invested by Japan and the US. American fusion research approached $250 million in 2001 and German domestic spend on fusion was _120 million in 2002.[308] UKAEA estimates that as a function of GDP, the UK is spending 25% of Japan's expenditure and 60% of the Unites States'.[309]

186. Energy from fusion has been an exciting area of energy research for several decades, with the prospect of fusion power not apparently getting any nearer. This has prompted a degree of scepticism that the technology will ever be viable. The Economist published an article in July 2002, crediting fusion research for establishing a new universal constant: 30 years, the time until fusion power becomes a reality.[310] There are also complaints that the UK's funding for fusion research is disproportionately high and that it needs to be better balanced with research expenditure on other innovative energy technologies.[311] The UKAEA's defence of the criticism aimed at fusion research is that very substantial progress has been made in recent years, and that this progress has been made against a backdrop of continually decreasing funding.[312]

187. The Chief Scientific Adviser has been pushing for a fast-track approach to fusion development, advocating the establishment of an International Fusion Materials Irradiation Facility (IFMIF) to work in parallel to reactor development at ITER.[313] The Energy White Paper says that "We are a long way from a commercial power plant, but the technical feasibility of fusion power generation could be demonstrated within 25 years given adequate resources, possibly leading to full-scale power generation within 30 years".[314]

188. We have taken a close interest in the state of fusion research and its prospects for power generation. During our visit to Japan, we visited the JAERI (Atomic Energy Research Institute) tokamak at Naka and the research programme at Culham on our return. It was easy to be impressed by the scale of the scientific achievement at both sites but this should not cloud our view of the research's viability and the substantial resources being spent; and the time when it will become technically and commercially viable is still several decades off. Nevertheless, we conclude that the progress in fusion research has been substantial in recent years. Together with the huge impact that fusion could have in reducing carbon emissions, we consider it to be foolish not to at least maintain the current level of resources invested in UK fusion research.

189. Our concern is less that fusion power may not become a reality, more that when it does the UK will have lost its knowledge base and will resort to importing expertise and hardware. During our visit to Culham we were told that Japanese companies such as Hitachi were already prepared to build and sell a tokamak. That the UK was poorly placed to take commercial advantage of JET in the long term was a concern of Derek Robinson, the late Director of the UKAEA Fusion Programme. Sir David King felt that this could be rectified but that the UK's engineering scene would need a big boost. We were impressed at both Naka and Culham by the international perspective of the researchers, who see that this is a global pursuit that transcends national boundaries. This is admirable research but we feel that someone needs to be looking after the UK's interests when it comes to the maintenance of skills and expertise. As UKAEA says itself, the UK is in a fortunate position, largely at other people's expense.[315]

190. We were pleased to see the positive approach to fusion set out in the White Paper. It considers that by 2020 fusion will be at an advanced stage of development.[316] We were also pleased to see that the Government is not content to rely on ITER as the UK's contribution to fusion research: "The UK has considerable expertise in fusion and a complementary national fusion programme will also be needed to maximise the benefit from this expertise".[317] What is lacking is any detail as to how this can be achieved and how much money the Government will commit. We were pleased that Sir David King will be lobbying to keep JET operational until ITER is up and running but less so that he could give no assurances about the future of the UK's domestic programme, principally MAST, saying that "by putting quite significant funds and growing funds into the international project, national projects will have to be run down".[318] From 2003, EURATOM funding for the UK's national fusion programme will decline from 25% to 20%. We would like the Government's reassurance that it will compensate UKAEA for this loss in income.

191. We were concerned during our visit that UKAEA was not actively lobbying for a continued fusion programme in the UK after JET was shut down and suggested that it submit to the inquiry a "vision" for the future of Culham.[319] The UKAEA's submission contains, we believe, a sensible blueprint for the future, maximising the UK's input to ITER in the short term and proposing a "major facility of strategic value to the 'fast track' when JET operations end". UKAEA says the decision point for such a facility is some way off but we believe that UKAEA should start making the case now to position itself for any bid. It is our impression that UKAEA does not lobby aggressively enough. We were told during our visit to Culham that when the issue the UK submitting a bid for ITER was raised in 1997, the then Science Minister did not pursue it. Little attempt seems to have been made to persuade him and we consider this to have been a lost opportunity. Sir David King told us that he wished the UK had bid for ITER and that he would recommend that the UK seek to host IFMIF, although this would be unlikely to succeed if one of the European bids for ITER were successful.[320] The UK has been fortunate to host JET but it must not waste this good fortune. We recommend that the Government invests resources to maintain the UK's domestic fusion programme with a view to building a major facility in the future. We believe that fusion power will become a reality and the UK must benefit from the fruition of this technology.

305   Ev 84 Back

306   Unpublished memorandum from UKAEA Back

307   Speech by US Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham, Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, 30 January 2003. Back

308   Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, Nuclear Fusion, Postnote Number 192, January 2003; German Helmholtz Research Programme proposals for 2004-2008 Back

309   Ev 21 Back

310   It's Impossible. And What's More, it's Improbable, The Economist, 20 July 2002. Back

311   Ev 43 Back

312   Ev 146 Back

313   Q 605 Back

314   DTI, Our energy future-creating a low carbon future, Cm 5761, February 2003, para 7.37 Back

315   Ev 143 Back

316   DTI, Our energy future-creating a low carbon future, Cm 5761, February 2003, p 19 Back

317   As above, para 7.37 Back

318   Q 605 Back

319   Ev 143-147 Back

320   Qq 608, 610 Back

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