U.K. picks a coal power station for its fusion pilot, but still needs a design

October 11, 2022, 3:00PMNuclear News
The Spherical Tokamak for Energy Production, shown here in an artist's rendition, is a government-backed prototype fusion energy plant planned for operation in the U.K. in the early 2040s. (Image: UKAEA)

The U.K. Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA) and Tokamak Energy announced on October 10 that they signed a framework agreement to collaborate on developing spherical tokamaks for power production. This news is a complement to last week’s announcement from the U.K. government that the West Burton A coal-fired power plant site in Nottinghamshire has been selected as the future home of STEP (Spherical Tokamak for Energy Production), the U.K.’s planned prototype fusion energy plant. The government is providing £220 million (about $250 million) of funding for the first phase of STEP, which will see the UKAEA produce a concept design by 2024.

The Culham Centre for Fusion Energy (CCFE) said in an October 4 statement, “We are really pleased to confirm the West Burton site, in North Nottinghamshire, has been selected as the future home for the STEP prototype fusion energy plant, bringing to a conclusion the siting process that has been running since December 2020.” The site, in England’s East Midlands region, is about 150 miles north of London and 100 miles east of Liverpool.

Dark horse: West Burton was not on the shortlist of five sites released by the government in October 2021. But just three months later, the UKAEA and the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy announced that one of the five—Ratcliffe-on-Soar in Nottinghamshire—had been removed from consideration, while West Burton, which had been named as a reserve site, was brought back into consideration.

Tris Denton, STEP’s head of commercial and program development, explained in January 2022 that “the site of the West Burton A coal fired power station, also in Nottinghamshire, was also proposed as a candidate for STEP and has been held in reserve based on a number of strong features. The potential for this site to compare favorably with the remaining sites on our shortlist means that we will now restart assessment at this site to further consider its merits. This will maintain the strength and diversity of the options we have. We look forward to continuing to work with the nominating partnership, including Nottinghamshire County Council and the site owner, EDF.”

The plan for STEP: The ultimate goal of STEP is to demonstrate that fusion can provide net energy to the grid. To get there, the UKAEA plans three work phases: Phase 1, developing a concept design by 2024; Phase 2, developing a detailed engineering design and pursuing regulatory permissions; and Phase 3, construction of the prototype fusion power plant, “targeting completion around 2040.”

The UKAEA announced a decision to exclude future fusion energy facilities from current U.K. regulatory and licensing requirements for fission in June 2022. That move was made with the expectation it would provide “clarity to developers of prototype/demonstration fusion facilities currently being planned to support rapid commercialization.”

STEP plans call for immediately building a future workforce. According to the siting announcement, “The ambitious program will also commit immediately to the development of apprenticeship schemes in the region, building on the success of the [UKAEA] Oxfordshire Advanced Skills Centre in Culham. Conversations with local providers and employers have already begun, with schemes to start as soon as possible.”

Design collaboration: The collaboration agreed to yesterday by the UKAEA and Tokamak Energy commits the companies to joint technology development, equipment and facilities sharing, and staff assignments and will focus on areas including materials development and testing, power generation, fuel cycle, diagnostics, and remote handling.

Both organizations have operational spherical tokamak devices, with Tokamak Energy’s ST40 recently achieving a plasma temperature of 100 million degrees Celsius, the threshold required for commercial fusion energy. UKAEA’s Mega Amp Spherical Tokamak (MAST) Upgrade experiment at CCFE has helped pave the way for STEP.

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