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.
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
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 occurif
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.
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
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
1.10 On the basis of the quality of this
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
1.11 Fusion is technically achievableJET
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