Select Committee on Science and Technology Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum submitted by the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA)

  1.  Fusion research and development in the UK is co-ordinated, and mostly carried out by the UKAEA at Culham Science Centre in Oxfordshire and, as the major centre for fusion research in the UK, we have prepared this submission.

  2.  The following briefly addresses the specific areas of interest described by the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee announcement of the inquiry into non-carbon energy sources. The areas of interest are reproduced in bold type, followed by our response. This is followed in an Appendix by a more detailed discussion of some of the points for further information.

  3.  To evaluate the level of expenditure on RD&D in non-carbon energy technologies, by UK government, the Research Councils, the Carbon Trust and industry, and where it is being directed.

  4.  The present level of UK government spend, via the Office of Science and Technology, on fusion is approximately £15 million of which £6 million is the premium paid to host JET, the European experiment sited at Culham. Jet is the world's largest fusion experiment and is primarily supported by European funding, both from EURATOM and direct from other European states. JET represents the main-line in fusion development. The UK funding further supports the research on a smaller device known as MAST, also located at Culham. This device serves as a research and training facility whilst also looking for improvements in technology that can benefit fusion development as a whole.

  5.  To identify which technologies are, or should be, receiving support, and how much investment is directed at research, development and demonstration respectively.

  6.  Fusion is one of the very few energy options which, through RD&D, can lead to a major new non-carbon energy source with a very large resource base, without leading to other safety or environmental concerns. At a time when the exploitation of low carbon energy sources appears imperative, it is essential that such major sources of energy are developed.

  7.  Fusion development is justified primarily by the major environmental and safety benefits of fusion power, as well as its widespread resources. This is not further elaborated here since it is the non-carbon aspect of the technology that is of primary interest: however these benefits are described in more detail in Appendix 1, under the headings Security of Supply and Climate Change and Broader Environmental Issues.

  8.  As fusion approaches the power plant scale it is increasingly moving from research, through development towards demonstration. The main line of fusion research, epitomised by JET, is primarily aimed at fusion development although some amount of basic research is still carried out. In addition, there are other smaller research machines around the world, one of which is in the UK, which are aimed at investigating ways to improve fusion development as well as serving as research and training facilities. Although the emphasis on the different aspect of fusion varies between countries, the next stage in fusion development, an international project called ITER, is primarily aimed at demonstrating large levels of fusion power as well as large net energy gain. This takes it more into the area of demonstration and further from basic research.

  9.  To assess the skills base and the state of RD&D for different technologies.

  10.  With the siting of JET in the UK and the European funding that goes with it, we are in a very fortunate position of having a wide skills base in fusion development. The UK fusion programme makes every effort to involve UK industry in the international fusion programme, to benefit the UK as a whole. There are corresponding benefits to the UK scientific community.

  11.  Fusion has reached the stage of significant power production with 16 MW of fusion power produced. To go to higher powers and to achieve large net power production, the next generation of fusion device is needed. This is already designed as an international collaboration, ITER, which will produce hundreds of megawatts of power: that is, on the scale of a power plant, There are four sites proposed for the construction of ITER, one in Japan, one in Canada, one in Spain and one in France. The political decision to select the best site and proceed with construction is now awaited. Political support from UK government will be very important at this stage, not only to develop fusion but also for the UK to gain most benefit for our industrial and scientific communities.

  12.  For fusion to profess to commercial exploitation it is also necessary to optimise the promising candidate fusion power station materials that already exist. These will be important in preventing the production of long lived radioactive waste and allowing recycling of almost all of the materials used in a power plant. These materials have been tested as far as is presently practicable, but further optimisation will require the construction of a dedicated materials test facility. Although this is not a dominant cost item for the fusion programme, it still requires international collaboration and is less advanced than the ITER programme. Again, political support from UK government will be necessary, and should include considering a site proposal for an international materials test facility. These issues are described further in Appendix 1 under the sections headed International Aspects and Nuclear Issues.

  13.  To establish how government policy on energy RD&D is formulated, implemented and evaluated, and the nature of co-ordination between department, external agencies and industry.

  14.  Because of the strategic nature of energy research and the strong international dimension of fusion development, it is important that there is a strategic involvement of government in setting the research objectives and time-scales. A piecemeal approach, in which individual elements of the research were approved independently by peer review for instance, would reduce the focus on the development of a new energy source and jeopardise the leverage obtained through strong international collaboration.

  15.  To establish the level of and rationale for international collaboration in energy RD&D and how priorities are determined.

  16.  To proceed with the demonstration of fusion it has been increasingly necessary to promote international collaboration. This is because the current fusion research budget of any of the individual countries in the fusion programme is insufficient to construct devices on the scale of a power plant.

  17.  The need to pool resources and expertise has driven fusion international collaboration, firstly in Europe and more recently with most of the developed world. The European programme has been run for many years as a closely integrated and co-ordinated Europe-wide programme supplemented by collaborations with other countries outside Europe. With the introduction of ITER design work, the world fusion programme has become a more formally co-ordinated endeavour. This level of collaboration will have to continue and increase if fusion is to be demonstrated as a viable technology whilst at the same time not increasing the research budget. More details can be found in Appendix 1 under the heading International Aspects.

  18.  To examine the effect on energy RD&D of privatisation, liberalisation, regulation and changes in ownership in the sector.

  19.  We have no comments.

  20.  To make comparisons with overseas competitors.

  21.  Because of the highly international nature of the fusion programme, it is easy for us to make these comparisons. In spite of having the world's largest fusion facility, Europe's JET experiment, sited in the UK, our domestic fusion programme has continuously declined over the last 20 years and is now one of the smallest in the developed world when measured as a fraction of GDP.

  22.  In comparison with other countries our expenditure as a fraction of GDP is 33% of the European average, and only 20% of the German value.

  23.  In the wider context, the UK fusion programme as a percentage of GDP is approximately four times lower than that in Japan. Even in comparison with the US where fusion research budgets are at historically low levels, it is 40% lower as a fraction of GDP. It is hoped that the present low levels of US expenditure will be increased and there are clear indications that the US administration are considering such a step. Even in emerging economies such as Korea, there is a large fusion spend, justified by their vision that dependence on fossil fuels will have to end. These issues are discussed further in Appendix 1, under the heading International Aspects.

  24.  Overall, the UK spend on fusion lags behind almost every other developed nation. When JET closes down, as is expected within five years, the UK skills base will be lost unless UK funding increases.


  25.  The UK continues to play a large role in the international fusion programme, with our siting of the world's largest fusion experiment, JET, and the European funding that goes with it, playing a key part in shaping that role. This has led to the build up of a very valuable skills base.

  26.  Fusion powers of 16 megawatts have been demonstrated. To move to the hundreds of megawatts level, a new fusion device is needed. This is already designed as an international collaboration, ITER, and decisions at the political level on siting and construction are awaited.

  27.  In spite of the UK's large role in fusion development, the level of UK fusion funding has continuously declined over the last 20 years and is now one of the lowest in the developed world, as a fraction of GDP. With fusion's environmental, safety and resource advantages, particularly as a non-carbon source of energy, with the recent success in fusion development and the existence of a clear way forward for the international fusion programme, now is an ideal time to reverse the decline in the level of funding.


  (1)  UK government should continue to strongly support ITER, pressing for an early decision on its siting and construction.

  (2)  As a major participant in ITER, the benefit to the UK as a whole should be maximised through continued involvement of the academic, technological and industrial communities.

  (3)  UK government should continue to support the development of fusion materials, taking a lead role in progressing an international materials test facility and considering the possibility of a UK site.

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2003
Prepared 11 April 2003