UK to finalise site for prototype fusion energy plant by 2022

14 Oct 2021

A conceptual image of the STEP plant. Image: UKAEA

Five sites have been shortlisted for the plant, which is hoped to be operational in the early 2040s.

A UK government-backed programme to build a prototype fusion energy plant has taken a step forward, shortlisting five potential sites and saying a final decision on the location will be made by the end of 2022.

The Spherical Tokamak for Energy Production (STEP) plant aims to pave the way to commercial fusion energy by demonstrating how net electricity can be generated from fusion. If the project is a success, similar plants could be opened across the world to help countries convert to this form of power.

Future Human

Currently, there is a concerted push among energy researchers worldwide to harness the potential of fusion.

Fusion energy has the potential to provide a limitless source of low-carbon energy by copying the processes that power the sun and stars, where atoms are fused to release energy. This could create nearly 4m times more energy for every kilogram of fuel than burning coal, oil or gas.

According to UK government minister for science, research and innovation, George Freeman, fusion has the potential to be “a truly revolutionary and inexhaustible energy source” that could help consumers reduce their “dependence on unreliable fossil fuels and tackle climate change”.

“By building the foundations to unlock the power of fusion energy, including the location of the UK’s first prototype fusion power plant, we are positioning the UK as a global leader in this safe and sustainable power source,” Freeman added.

Finalising the location

The government is still determining where to locate the STEP plant. It has identified five possible locations from a longer list of 15 sites. The shortlisted locations are Ardeer in North Ayrshire, Goole in East Riding of Yorkshire, Moorside in Cumbria, Ratcliffe-on-Soar in Nottinghamshire, and Severn Edge in the Gloucestershire area.

A final decision on the plant’s location will be made around the end of 2022. The UK Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA), which carries out research into fusion energy and related technologies for the UK government, aims to have the STEP plant operating by the early 2040s. A concept design is expected by 2024.

Paul Methven, STEP programme director at UKAEA, said that the shortlisting of the sites represents “a significant step for the programme” as it had brought the “challenging, long-term endeavour to life in the here and now”.

“It also increases our focus as we push on with design and delivery of what we hope is the world’s first fusion power plant prototype.” The prototype will be used to develop the technology and it is hoped that a fleet of commercial plants will follow in the years after 2040.

“Through the next phase of assessment, we look forward to working with the shortlisted sites and local communities to gain a more in-depth understanding of the socio-economic, commercial and technical conditions associated with each site, before we make our final recommendations to the secretary of state in 2022,” Methven added.

The UK government has made an initial £222m funding commitment to the STEP programme. It has also invested an additional £184m for new fusion facilities, infrastructure and apprenticeships at Culham Science Centre near Oxford and at Rotherham in South Yorkshire.

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Blathnaid O’Dea is Careers reporter at Silicon Republic