U.K. fusion energy projects get regulatory clarity to speed deployment

June 23, 2022, 7:01AMNuclear News
The Spherical Tokamak for Energy Production (STEP), shown here, is a government-backed prototype fusion energy plant planned for operation in the U.K. in the early 2040s. (Image: UKAEA)

Future fusion energy facilities will continue to be regulated by the Environment Agency (EA) and Health & Safety Executive (HSE), the U.K. government announced June 20, and existing law on nuclear regulations will be amended to exclude fusion energy facilities from nuclear fission regulatory and licensing requirements. The move was announced by the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA) with the expectation it would provide “clarity to developers of prototype/demonstration fusion facilities currently being planned to support rapid commercialization.”

While the U.K. is not unique in anticipating that fusion energy will require its own regulatory framework, it is ahead of the game at a time when private investment in fusion is soaring. In the United States, which has more private fusion companies than any other country, Nuclear Regulatory Commission staff continue to deliberate whether fusion should be regulated by the NRC in a similar way to a utilization facility, an accelerator facility, or with a new or hybrid approach.

Specifically: The UK government decision is backed by a report titled Towards fusion energy: The UK Government’s response to the consultation on its proposals for a regulatory framework for fusion energy, prepared by the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy. Key decisions include:

Current U.K. regulators of fusion R&D facilities will retain responsibility for fusion, and future fusion facilities will continue to be regulated by the EA and HSE (or devolved bodies as appropriate).

This regulatory approach will apply to all planned fusion prototype energy facilities in the U.K., providing clarity to developers of prototype or demonstration fusion facilities currently being planned to support rapid commercialization.

The government will legislate to make clear in law the regulatory treatment of fusion energy. This provides certainty and confidence to the industry by amending the law to exclude fusion energy facilities from nuclear regulatory and licensing requirements.

Ian Chapman, UKAEA chief executive, said, “This early confirmation of a proportionate regulatory framework will help accelerate the progress of fusion energy, which has great potential to deliver safe, sustainable, low-carbon energy for generations to come. It demonstrates our government’s high-level support and progressive approach to enabling fusion to happen here in the U.K.”

Consulting stakeholders: The government opened a consultation to seek views from stakeholders in October 2021 after publishing a green paper on its proposals for fusion regulation. Fifty-eight organizations responded, including regulatory bodies, fusion companies, research organizations, engineering firms, academicians, and members of the public. The June 20 announcement and report represent the government’s response to the consultation.

“Input from U.K. and international experts has been invaluable in helping the government to reach a decision on how to regulate this rapidly evolving, cutting-edge technology,” said George Freeman, U.K. science minister. “We believe that the decisions—based on the best available evidence and now supported by regulators, the fusion industry, and other experts—are the right ones to help move safely and determinedly towards fusion energy.”

Fusion in the U.K.: A “global fusion industry in 2021” survey developed by the Fusion Industry Association with support from the UKAEA identified at least 35 global fusion companies, including five in the U.K. and 13 in the U.S. The five companies based in the U.K. are: Crossfield Fusion, First Light Fusion, Fusion Reactors Ltd., Pulsar Fusion, and Tokamak Energy.

In December 2021, the Joint European Torus—currently the most powerful fusion facility in the world—broke its own record for sustained fusion energy. JET is operated by the UKAEA in Culham, Oxford, has been successfully regulated by the EA and the HSE for 39 years, according to the UKAEA. Next up is a prototype fusion energy plant called STEP—the Spherical Tokamak for Energy Production—which the UKAEA plans to operate at one of five short-listed sites in the UK by the early 2040s.

In the U.S.: In 2009, the NRC voted to exercise authority over commercial fusion but directed the staff not to proceed with rulemaking until the timeline for the deployment of commercial fusion technology was more predictable. The Nuclear Energy Innovation and Modernization Act, signed into law in 2019, directed the NRC to reduce the regulatory burden for developers of “advanced nuclear reactors,” defining that term as “a nuclear fission or fusion reactor.” In a rulemaking plan approved by the commission in October 2020 (­SECY-20-0032), staff noted that the NRC could regulate fusion as it does accelerators, and that the NRC should consult with Agreement States if that approach is chosen.

The NRC has hosted a series of public webinars titled “Developing Options for a Regulatory Framework for Fusion Energy Systems” since October 2020.

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