World-first nuclear fusion plant could 'help change the world''

March 03 2021
World-first nuclear fusion plant could 'help change the world'

A BID is being launched to build a cutting-edge nuclear reactor using land at the former Oldbury and Berkeley power stations.

The UK Atomic Energy Authority is seeking a location for the first ever nuclear fusion plant, which replicates how the sun works in a chamber on earth to provide limitless, clean energy.

Making such a plant work is seen as an answer to the world’s energy problems - but no fusion reactor has ever been produced that creates more energy than it consumes.

Now the Oldbury site near Thornbury is being touted as a possible home for a world-first prototype.

Councils, MPs and key industry and business partners on the boundary of Gloucestershire and South Gloucestershire have teamed up in the hope of attracting a cutting-edge reactor called a Spherical Tokamak for Energy Production (Step) to either Oldbury or nearby Berkeley, both of which have decommissioned nuclear power stations.

Plans to build a new commercial nuclear power station at Oldbury were abandoned last year by potential operator Hitachi, leaving the future of the site planned for the new station in doubt.

Supporters of the new scheme say it would create thousands of highly-skilled local jobs and bring billions of pounds of investment, with “transformational benefits” to the wider region by supporting a vast network of suppliers.

The Step Tokamak works by heating atoms to ten times the temperature of the centre of the Sun, forming a plasma in which they smash together in a process called nuclear fusion to produce heavier atoms. This releases a huge amount of energy which is converted to power a turbine and generate electricity, just like any power station.

Giant magnets keep the super-heated plasma away from the chamber's sides, preventing the reactor from melting down despite the inside reaching 100 million C.

Artist's impression of the new reactor inside the experimental power station building

Fusion is different from fission, which is used in traditional nuclear power stations where atoms, instead of being fused together, are split apart to release energy.

Unlike the old method, it does not produce any radioactive waste.

The Government has so far committed £222 million to the project.

UKAEA chief executive Professor Ian Chapman said fusion "has enormous potential as a carbon free, clean, effectively inexhaustible source of energy", adding: "We're looking for a community that wants to host Step, to be a home for Step, to help change the world."

Step director Paul Methven said: "The benefits for a local community could be amazing, ranging from high value employment opportunities to upskilling of young people to really being the centre for a new global hub around high tech, low carbon industry."

A working group of multiple partners including South Gloucestershire Council has answered the UKAEA’s call to nominate sites for the plant, which could begin operating by 2040.

A spokesperson for the partnership said the councils are working with the landowners to investigate the potential for nominating the Oldbury and Berkeley sites.

South Gloucestershire Council leader Toby Savage said: "It is obviously very early in the process and a nomination has not yet been submitted, however we believe this presents a superb opportunity for the region to build on its heritage in the energy sector and be positioned once again at the forefront of clean, low-carbon energy technology." 

Metro mayor Tim Bowles, whose role includes strategic economic development, said: “The West of England is already a centre of excellence for nuclear expertise, and by working as part of the Nuclear South West partnership, I want to make our region the international hub for safe, clean fusion technology.

Securing the Step project here will bring more jobs of the future to our region, create new business opportunities and secure our existing advanced manufacturing supply chains for the long term. It really is an exciting prospect.”

Conservative Mr Bowles' role is up for election in May.

Liberal Democrat metro mayor candidate Stephen Williams said: "We need various sources of renewable and clean energy.

"This could be a major boost to the economy of Thornbury and the surrounding villages. I want to see full community engagement if the bid succeeds."

Labour's candidate, Dan Norris, urged caution, saying nuclear fusion was one of the options for replacing fossil fuels like gas and coal but that "by 2040 it is highly likely that future technological progress will not only make renewable sources even more friendly to the planet, but also make nuclear fusion a much more expensive option".

He added: "Renewables will also create many more jobs than fusion can and, importantly, future improvements in renewable energy technology will still see cheaper energy consumer and business prices, and more environmentally-friendly power generation compared to the current proposals for nuclear fusion."

Includes reporting by Adam Postans, Local Democracy Reporting Service