Sunny-side up – new funding brings next generation nuclear fusion closer

Plasma in the Mega Amp Spherical Tokamak (MAST) fusion device at Culham

For more than 40 years, international scientists and engineers have strived to find ways to generate and harness nuclear fusion, the process that fuels the Sun, to run tomorrow’s power stations.  Now the country’s leading fusion experts are poised to take centre stage in driving this renewable, clean energy forward, following a £86 million government investment in new facilities.

Known as the National Fusion Technology Platform, these new facilities will be built over the next three years at the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy (CCFE), in Science Vale. CCFE is owned and operated by the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA), who oversee Britain’s fusion programme.  Two new specialist scientific centres of excellence will be built to take the national nuclear fusion programme forward:

  • Hydrogen-3 Advanced Technology (H3AT) to research how to process and store tritium – one of the fuels that will power commercial fusion reactors.
  • Fusion Technology Facilities (FTF) to carry out controlled thermal, mechanical, hydraulic and electromagnetic tests on prototype components found inside fusion reactors.

The platform will also put British businesses in pole position to successfully compete for international fusion technology contracts worth £1 billion.  By working more closely with industrial supply chains, UK businesses will build up knowledge to bid for these contracts, including those to supply the International Tokamak Experiment (ITER).  ITER is currently being built in southern France and due to go into operation in 2025.  They aim to show that fusion can work at a power plant scale and, if successful, should lead to fusion electricity being fed into the grid by 2050.  So far CCFE has helped 38 UK companies win contracts totalling more than €500 million.

The new facilities being built in Science Vale highlight the success and continuing investment in this rapidly expanding science and innovation business hub.  The new platform will also inform other current world-leading nuclear fusion research and testing already underway at Culham Science Centre.

This includes the pivotal and innovative Mega Amp Spherical Tokamak (MAST) upgrade experiment.  Employing 150 people, it offers a potential route to producing smaller and cheaper fusion reactors.  This specialist technology has recently been given a further £21 million for further enhancements.

CCFE also hosts the world’s largest magnetic fusion experiment called the Joint European Torus (JET), employing around 500 people.  Approximately 350 European fusion scientists use it each year to conduct ground-breaking research.  JET is still at the forefront of fusion research and is closely involved in testing plasma physics.  Staff from JET have been involved in the design, systems and materials needed for the ITER experiment.

These new developments are set to improve and strengthen the UK’s wider nuclear capabilities opening many new doors as this specialist sector grows.  For example, CCFE is already looking to take advantage of future synergies and research in this sector, including the development of advanced nuclear materials, robotics in hazardous environments, nuclear modelling, integrated systems and virtual engineering.

The new investment will also support the growth of high tech jobs including new positions in Science Vale based companies – 100 new jobs will be created at Culham Science Centre alongside others in the wider nuclear industry supply chain.  It is anticipated that this focus on developing future high tech skills will strengthen the UK’s participation in international advanced reactor development and enhance its expertise in critical areas of fusion research.