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Home » U.K. Participation in The World’s Largest Fusion Experiment is in Doubt

U.K. Participation in The World’s Largest Fusion Experiment is in Doubt

by Freddy Evans
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Announcement that the United Kingdom will not rejoin Euratom shuts researchers out of ITER fusion project—for now

Most researchers in the United Kingdom are cheering the government’s decision to rejoin the European Union’s €95 billion research program Horizon Europe after a 3-year absence because of Brexit. But for a small group—those working on fusion energy—the news is more mixed. In the same announcement yesterday, the government said it would not seek to rejoin Euratom, a body that regulates Europe’s nuclear energy market and coordinates research, especially in fusion. Some researchers are concerned that being outside Euratom will make it harder for them to work with European colleagues. And the decision means that for now, the U.K. will continue to be excluded from participation in ITER, the giant international fusion reactor project under construction in France, of which Euratom is a member.

“Yesterday’s announcement made clear that the U.K. does not intend to engage with Euratom as a whole,” says ITER spokesperson Laban Coblentz, but he hopes the U.K. will apply for associate membership of ITER so its companies and researchers can remain involved. “We still trust that the U.K. will retain a strong interest to continue to engage in the ITER Project, in one form or another.”

U.K. researchers are also taking comfort in the government’s promise of new funding for domestic fusion research of up to £650 million by 2027. “There has never been investment of this scale. It’s good for all approaches to fusion,” physicist Ian Chapman, chief executive of the U.K. Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA), said at a press briefing yesterday.

The U.K. has always been a major player in research on fusion, which melds light atoms—usually hydrogen isotopes—to release abundant, carbon-free energy. But in the 70 years researchers have tried to master it, no device has generated more energy than is needed to cause the reaction. The most promising approach involves using a huge doughnut-shaped magnetic cage called a tokamak to contain the isotopes while heating them to 100 million degrees Celsius so that they react. ITER will be the world’s biggest tokamak and is expected to be the first to get excess energy from the reaction. Experiments should begin in the next few years, but power-producing tests won’t start until the late 2030s at the earliest.

The U.K. currently hosts the largest tokamak in the world, Euratom’s Joint European Torus (JET), at the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy. Last month, the 40-year-old JET started its final run of experiments before it is switched off for good at the end of the year. UKAEA has also lured several startups to build their next machines at Culham and in 2019 launched its own program to design a prototype power reactor: the Spherical Tokamak for Energy Production (STEP). Engineers hope spherical tokamaks–shaped like a cored apple rather than a doughnut—can be built smaller and more cheaply than conventional tokamaks.

In its announcement yesterday, the government said focusing on its domestic fusion program was in the best interests of the U.K. taxpayer. The new funding will support STEP as well as technology development and training. “The biggest challenge facing fusion in the U.K., and indeed everywhere, is people,” says Kate Lancaster of the York Plasma Institute. “This money helps to support skills development and growing the community.”

But the “lion’s share” of the funding will be used for participation in international projects in Europe and elsewhere, according to Chapman. “This is a win-win for us,” says Richard Dendy of the University of Warwick, with more money for both domestic research and collaborations. But university-based researchers could face barriers setting up those collaborations with colleagues on Euratom-funded machines.

ITER is the biggest game in town, and Chapman says the U.K. plans to negotiate for association to the program, allowing its researchers to work on the reactor and its companies to bid for contracts. Australia and Kazakhstan have already joined ITER as associate members. There is no fixed formula for joining, Coblentz says, but any aspiring associate would need to show it had the financial resources, technical capability and expertise, and political will. It would also need to win unanimous approval from ITER’s governing council. “We must push to ensure we can still be involved in such a major global endeavor like ITER,” Lancaster says.

Source : Science

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