The UK has begun the process towards constructing the world’s first nuclear fusion power station by launching a search for a 100-plus hectare site where it can be plugged into the electricity grid. However, there are still major hurdles to overcome before it could start generating power. Boris Johnson, the prime minister committed US$267 million to begin research on the possibility of building the project, known as the Spherical Tokamak for Energy Production (STEP). The UK Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA), the government body overseeing STEP, hopes construction could begin around 2030, with the plant operating as soon as 2040.
The plant is pitched as an important plank in efforts to hit the UK’s target of net zero emissions by 2050. But fusion faces big challenges to play that role. Reproducing the way the sun makes energy, by fusing hydrogen together to make helium, requires significant energy on Earth to heat and control the hydrogen with huge magnets. So far, no fusion reactor has yet produced more power than it consumed. That might change in the next 5 years when the world’s biggest fusion project, ITER in France, is due to switch on. The hope is it will turn 50 megawatts of power into 500MW, proving a net gain is possible and this will help the case for the STEP project, however, STEP’s power output goal is more modest, a net gain of 100MW. Unlike ITER, it will be connected to the ordinary electricity grid to understand how a fusion plant operates day in, day out.
Ian Chapman at the UKAEA says the nuclear fusion power station may cost around US$2.67 billion, the equivalent cost in today’s money of building the Joint European Torus (JET), an existing fusion reactor in the UK that was constructed in the 1980s. Francis Livens at the University of Manchester, UK, says the cost and timeline are “ambitious but not implausible”.