Lords to quiz UK nuclear experts on prospects for fusion power

The nuclear fusion process
The nuclear fusion process

The House of Lords Science and Technology Committee is holding a one-off evidence session on 21 July into the prospects for nuclear fusion and the UK’s research and development landscape.

Those due to give evidence are:

  • Professor Steven Cowley FRS, FREng, Chief Executive, UK Atomic Energy Authority
  • Dr David Kingham, Chief Executive Officer, Tokamak Energy
  • Dr Sharon Ellis, Deputy Director, Research Unit, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.

Nuclear fusion is potentially one of the most promising options for generating large amounts of carbon-free energy in the future.

Fusion is the process that heats the Sun and all other stars, where atomic nuclei collide together and release energy in the form of neutrons. Fusion scientists and engineers are developing the technology to use this process in tomorrow’s power stations.

To get energy from fusion, gas from a combination of types of hydrogen – deuterium and tritium – is heated to very high temperatures (100 million degrees Celsius). One way to achieve these conditions is a method called ‘magnetic confinement’ – controlling the hot gas (known as a plasma) with strong magnets.

Currently, the most promising device for this is the ‘tokamak’, a Russian word for a ring-shaped magnetic chamber.

Many of the scientific hurdles in fusion have now been overcome by researchers. The world’s largest tokamak, JET (Joint European Torus), has produced 16 megawatts of fusion power and proved the technical feasibility of fusion using deuterium and tritium, currently considered the most efficient fuels.

The commercial challenge now is to prove fusion can work on a power plant scale.

Possible questions include:

  1. How much money does the UK invest in nuclear fusion research and is it cost-effective?
  2. What is the capability for nuclear fusion research in the UK?
  3. Is private nuclear fusion R&D in the UK flourishing, and how well is it supported by the Government?
  4. How effective has Government action been to lead this area?
  5. What is the likely timescale for commercialisation of nuclear fusion technologies? Could we be generating electricity by 2050?
  6. Are there any lessons to be learned from international research programmes into nuclear fusion, such as those underway in the USA and China?
  7. Is the Government’s Nuclear Strategy fit for purpose in terms of fusion research? Does it adequately recognise the contribution that the advancement of fusion technology could make to the nuclear energy landscape in the UK?

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