The UK government just announced an investment of GBP 200 million to build the world’s first prototype commercial fusion reactor. The project will be first conceptualised at the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy, with the ambitious goal of building a plant capable of generating hundreds of megawatts of net electricity by the early 2040’s.
All of today’s nuclear reactors are fission, a process that channels the power released when splitting two atoms, whereas in fusion – the process that powers the sun—the energy comes from the combining two atoms. The stumbling block for fusion power is that the process itself takes more electricity than it produces, and so managing heat loss poses a large challenge. The proposed project will use a more compact design, a potentially cheaper but riskier manufacturing decision.
The implications of a working fusion reactor are enormous for sustainability and the energy revolution. If net gain fusion were to be achieved, it would allow for a nearly limitless supply of energy without any radioactive by-product. The UK has been a part of the leading international nuclear project ITER, but there’s been uncertainty around their continued involvement after exiting the European Union. To be economically feasible in the long-term, ITER needs both expertise and a path forward; this new investment allows for the UK be a part of the solution.
How might a viable fusion energy sector change the game for sustainable energy? How can countries and investors best collaborate to expedite the break-through in net-gain fusion? And how will the public narrative around nuclear energy have to change to scale support for further investment in fusion?