Fusion power for a resilient Scotland

STEP – the Spherical Tokamak for Energy Production – will be built in the UK: the first fusion power station in the world. There is a chance that STEP will come to Ardeer, Ayrshire. It is on the shortlist of only 5 sites for the UK Government’s strategic investment in fusion, a decision is expected in Autumn 2022.

Key points about fusion power:

  1. Totally safe: no possibility of runaway reaction
  2. Completely carbon-free energy production
  3. Produces only helium as waste product
  4. No radioactive chemical waste as a fusion process by-product to store for generations
  5. Can be used to power conventional steam turbine, but also tap the heat directly for manufacturing (cement, glass, green hydrogen production)
  6. Completely independent of the weather conditions
  7. Can be added to wind, solar and tidal power solutions to give resilience to power production in Scotland and UK.
  8. Home-grown technology that could be the basis of global export: a fleet of fusion power stations based on STEP design

Fusion vs Fission

  • Fusion does not create any long-lived radioactive waste.
  • It is an inherently safe technology with no possibility of a chain reaction occurring.
  • Fusion cannot be used to develop weapons.

Fission splits a heavy element (with a high atomic mass number) into fragments; while fusion joins two light elements (with a low atomic mass number), forming a heavier element. In both cases, significant energy release results.

Nuclear fission power plants have the disadvantage of generating unstable nuclei; some of these are radioactive for millions of years. Fusion, on the other hand, does not create any long-lived radioactive nuclear waste.

A fusion reactor produces helium, which is an inert gas. It also produces and consumes tritium within the plant in a closed circuit. Tritium is radioactive but its half life is short at just over 12 years. It presents no long term radiological hazard.

Fusion cannot cause a nuclear accident, because fusion energy production is not based on a chain reaction, as fission is: magnetic fusion reactors (tokamaks) are inherently safe, having only a few seconds worth of fuel in the vessel at any instant.

Magnetic fusion reactors have no connection with the production of nuclear weapons.

Why Fusion?

Energy production - the burning of fossil fuels - accounts for around three-quarters of global greenhouse gas emissions. It is the largest driver of climate change. The burning of fossil fuels and biomass also comes at a large cost to human health: 4.2 million deaths are attributed to ambient air pollution each year.[1]

Despite producing increased energy from renewables each year, the global energy mix is still dominated by coal, oil, and gas. Not only does most of our energy – 84%[2] – come from fossil fuels; we continue to burn more each year.

The scale of the challenge is enormous: just as existing energy sources are retiring from service, transport and domestic heating is being electrified, so increasing the demands on electricity generation.

Fusion offers a consistent source of energy that does not rely on weather conditions.

The solution not only to achieving but also sustaining Net Zero into the future lies in having a variety of low carbon energy sources, including renewables like wind and solar, and by advancing newer technologies like hydrogen and fusion.

Why is North Ayrshire a good place for STEP?

  • Excellent location (transport connections) and huge size of Ardeer coastal site
  • Coherent programme (HE and FE cooperation) for workforce development
  • Compelling socio-economic case for development
  • Wide support from local communities, unions, businesses, education, centres of excellence
  • Opportunity to create a tech cluster around the fusion process

Questions and Answers:

Fusion is a new and developing technology that has not yet been commercialised. STEP will be ‘first of a kind’, and better insight will come from sustained operation.

“Isn’t fusion is unachievable? – it’s always 30 years away”

  • Scientists have been working on fusion for decades, that’s true. However, in the last 4-5 years, enormous strides have been made and some key challenges overcome, such as helium extraction from completed fusion reactions, and the injection of fresh fuel, meaning commercial fusion power is a practical reality.
  • Additionally, fusion has now started to attract enormous amounts of private investment, which not only testifies to the progress that has already been made but should also accelerate future progress.

“Shouldn’t the money be spent on proven renewables technology instead of expensive fusion.”

  • To achieve and sustain Net Zero we need all the sources of energy we can muster – renewables, hydrogen, fusion all have a part to play in addressing climate change. Wind turbines, for example, were very expensive and impractical as early prototypes!
  • Additionally, the UK Government has already committed to building the first fusion prototype in the world. That investment will go to one of the final 5 sites in contention.

1.      What happens next

The STEP siting team have concluded their technical assessments of all five shortlisted sites and made a report to the UK Government’s Department for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy (BEIS). The final decision on the location will be taken by the Secretary of State for BEIS.

We are now awaiting this final decision and the announcement of where STEP will be located. This will be by the end of 2022, but could be as early as October.

[1] Air pollution (who.int)

[2] Energy mix - Our World in Data

First published: 30 August 2022

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