The UK today took a step towards building the world’s first nuclear fusion power plant by looking for more than 100 acres to be plugged into the grid. However, there are still major hurdles to overcome before electricity can be generated.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson pledged an additional £ 200 million last year to flesh out the possibility of building the project known as the Spherical Tokamak for Power Generation (STEP). The UK Atomic Energy Agency (UKAEA), the government agency overseeing STEP, is hoping construction can begin around 2030 and the facility will be operational by 2040.
UKAEA’s Ian Chapman says STEP could cost around £ 2 billion, the current cost of building the Joint European Torus (JET), an existing fusion reactor in the UK that was built in the 1980s. Francis Livens of the University of Manchester, UK, says the cost and schedule are “ambitious but not implausible”.
As the name suggests, JET has been an internationally funded endeavor while the UK government is hoping to run STEP on its own. In addition, it has a different, groundbreaking design with accompanying technical challenges. “STEP is an extremely ambitious program: to be a pioneer, to be the first in the world to produce a prototype of a fusion power plant and then to export it all over the world,” says Chapman.
The facility plays an important role in efforts to meet the UK’s goal of zero emissions by 2050. However, the merger faces major challenges to play that role. Reproducing the way the sun creates energy by fusing hydrogen into helium requires significant energy on earth to heat and control the hydrogen with giant magnets.
No fusion reactor has so far produced more electricity than it consumed. This could change in 2025 when the world’s largest fusion project, ITER in France, is turned on. The hope is that 50 megawatts of power will be converted into 500 MW, which proves that a net profit is possible.
STEP’s performance goal is more modest – a net gain of 100 MW – but unlike ITER, it is plugged into the normal grid to understand how a fusion device works day in and day out.
This week UKAEA is calling on local councils and landowners in the UK to host STEP as the Authority’s current home in Culham, Oxfordshire is full. Nominations can be made by March 2021, with the plan to select a location by the end of 2022.
Later on, the cost could be a major hurdle. While the running costs should be relatively cheap, it’s not £ 2 billion for a 100 MW plant. “That’s some expensive electrons,” says Richard Howard of analyst Aurora Energy Research. He estimates STEP would need to reduce its cost of capital by about 80 percent to be competitive with today’s new large fission plants like Hinkley Point C being built in the UK.
The UKAEA says funding could come from a mix of public and private funds. Catherine Mitchell of the University of Exeter says that given the lack of public benefit from the merger, further development of the merger is better left to the private sector. “If I were a minister and had so many other calls for my money, I would cut all public funding for the merger, ”she says.
Scaling is also an issue – 100 MW is tiny as England, Scotland and Wales now have around 78,000 MW of power plant capacity. And Howard predicts that electricity consumption will increase by about 50 percent by 2040 due to the electrification of cars and heating, making 100 MW even less significant.
Years of data from STEP would be required for the later construction of a larger plant, which means that the merger will only make a practical contribution to combating climate change after 2050. “None of this means we shouldn’t do this. If it can be proven, it would be hugely helpful, ”says Howard.