Select Committee on Trade and Industry Written Evidence


Annex 1

THE POTENTIAL OF FUSION POWER

  1.1  The UK's fusion research programme is centred at UKAEA Culham, which also hosts the Joint European Torus (JET)—currently the world's leading fusion research facility.

  1.2  This note outlines the important potential of fusion power as a large-scale, environmentally responsible source of baseload power, and argues that it should be developed as rapidly as realistically possible.

FUSION POWER

  1.3  Fusion, which powers the sun and stars, occurs at very high temperatures that allow the nuclei of very light atoms to fuse, to form heavier atoms, releasing large quantities of energy.

  1.4  Harnessing fusion is a major scientific and technological challenge (for more information see http://www.fusion.org.uk/, http://www.jet.efda.org/ or http://www.iter.org/), but the outlook is promising. Conditions in the JET facility at Culham have reached the point where the fusion power released is comparable to the heating power which is provided externally.

  1.5  Fusion has many potential advantages:

    —  Supplies of the raw fuel (water and lithium) are virtually limitless.

    —  Fusion is carbon free and does not produce any of the environmental emissions associated with fossil fuelled power generation. Its by-product (helium) is not a pollutant.

    —  It is fail-safe. Fusion must be continuously fuelled so the process can easily be stopped. The challenge is to keep a very hot gas together long enough for fusion to occur—if anything untoward occurs, the reaction is extinguished.

    —  It does not give rise to any of the long-lived radioactive products (actinides) which create a 100,000 year waste management challenge for fission technology. While the central components of a fusion reactor would become radioactive, the relevant half lives are typically 10 years and all materials could be re-cycled within 100 years.

    —  It does not give rise to the proliferation issues associated with the production of highly enriched uranium or plutonium in fission cycles.

  1.6  Assuming fusion can be harnessed reliably, it is estimated that the cost of fusion generated electricity would be comparable to that of clean coal and renewables. The economics are dominated by capital costs and improve with scale (1GW electrical output currently looks like the minimal viable size; electricity from a 2GW power station would be some 25% cheaper). The consequences are that:

    —  Fusion is likely to be more attractive for large conurbations (which house roughly half the world's population) than in sparsely populated areas. In this sense fusion is complementary to most renewables.

    —  Fusion power stations will produce large quantities of cheap off-peak power, which could be used to produce hydrogen for transport fuel (either via electrolysis or directly using the high temperatures characteristic of fusion devices and catalytic cracking), or perhaps desalination.

THE INTERNATIONAL RESEARCH PROGRAMME

  1.7  The focus of fusion R&D is now shifting from the physics of creating and maintaining a very hot gas ("plasma") in which fusion occurs, to integrating this plasma with the technologies needed in a power station, and identifying materials that can survive years of operation in a fusion reactor. The next steps are construction of the International Tokamak Experimental Reactor (ITER) and of the proposed International Fusion Materials Irradiation Facility (IFMIF). If these are undertaken in parallel (on the so-called "fast track" strongly advocated by the Government's Chief Scientific Advisor), then a prototype fusion power station could be generating electricity on a Giga-Watt scale within 30 years.

  1.8  ITER is expected to produce at least 500 MW of fusion power. Construction, in France, by the EU in partnership with Japan, the USA, Russia, China, South Korea and India, will begin shortly. The EU and Japan have recently agreed to launch the final R&D and engineering design phase of IFMIF. Construction of ITER and IFMIF should take some ten years. Once results from ITER and IFMIF have been assimilated, the goal will be construction of a prototype fusion power station.

  1.9  As well as hosting and participating in experiments at JET, the UK has its own (relatively modest, but world class) fusion research programme at Culham, funded jointly by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council and by EURATOM. The focus is primarily on:

    —  The Mega Amp Spherical Tokamak (MAST). Spherical tokamaks, which were pioneered in the UK, may eventually be the basis for a more compact, more efficient design for fusion power stations.

    —  Preparing for ITER.

  1.10  On the basis of the quality of this programme, [159]the UK enjoys a strong voice in fusion policy in Europe (and world-wide) and is successfully advocating a strongly mission orientated world fusion programme focussed on the early construction of a prototype power station.

RECOMMENDATIONS

  1.11  Fusion is technically achievable—JET currently holds the world record of 16 MW production. In view of the absolute importance of meeting future world energy needs, fusion should be developed as fast as reasonably practicable, as part of a portfolio approach to the development and deployment of more efficient and less carbon intensive technologies.

  1.12  The UK should maintain a strong fusion programme in order to contribute to the rapid development of fusion power, and strengthen the UK's voice in ensuring a fast-track, focussed European and world fusion development programme.


159   International referees recently described the UK programme as being "At the forefront of international research . . . truly world-class" and "quality very high on any scale . . . in relation to financial and personnel effort-outstanding"Back


 
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