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UK nuclear fusion breakthrough no "silver bullet" for net-zero plans

10 February 2022 Cristina Brooks

While the EU and the UK hailed a "sustainable low-carbon energy" breakthrough via a longer sustained nuclear fusion reaction, it is still too early to say how significant the actual impact will be.

The joint 9 February announcement stops short of confirming the technology will be ready to use to meet their Paris Agreement-aligned net-zero goals.

Nuclear fusion is widely considered a safer and cleaner technology than traditional nuclear power, but it will not have a big role in reaching net-zero because the move from demonstration to global implementation will take decades, meaning it is no "silver bullet" for the climate crisis, Director of the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech University Katharine Hayhoe said in a tweet.

Likewise, UK member of parliament Wera Hobhouse said, "It would be misleading to look at nuclear fusion as a solution to the climate emergency. These technologies are a long way away from being of use as an energy source in time for our net zero targets by 2050."

Last year, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) said "a pilot plant in the 2035-2040 timeframe requires urgent investments by the Department of Energy (DOE) and private industry." The NRC expects developers to decide to build the first fusion power plant with a capacity in excess of 50 MWe by 2045.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has noted that estimates for fusion's commercialization range from 2030 to 2050, and beyond.

The EU's 2050 carbon neutrality target is set to be reached through various industrial technology and behavioral changes proposed in its Fit for 55 policy package; the bloc will largely rely on renewables for its electricity, according to proposals. The UK, meanwhile, will follow a similar path to net zero by 2050.

Traditional nuclear energy was recently added to the EU's sustainable finance guidelines, the EU Taxonomy, as a key energy transition technology. The power source is headed for an investment boost as the guidelines update EU financial regulations.

The UK is hoping to get ahead of the investment curve through subsidies. In October the UK launched its Fusion Strategy to kickstart a domestic nuclear fusion industry, with commercialization in the 2030s and 2040s, alongside a consultation on regulations for nuclear fusion, dealing with issues like risk insurance and waste.

Not only is a fusion reaction carbon-free (emitting only helium), but the deuterium fuel used in fusion reactions is easily found in nature, the strategy noted.

But Michael Bluck, director of the Centre for Nuclear Engineering at Imperial College London, said that one material, tritium, is required for larger reactions and is rare to find naturally. Tritium is made using lithium.

The UK expects to both build a homegrown nuclear fusion technology sector for exports and show off a domestic commercial fusion power plant prototype by 2040.

Funding for this is laid out in the UK's 2021 R&D roadmap, which sees it spending £22 billion ($30 billion) per year by 2024 or 2025. It aims to be "at the forefront of global markets for clean technology."

The UK is already among the top countries globally for offshore wind capacity, but it is also pursuing a role in carbon capture, usage and storage (CCUS), hydrogen, zero-emission vehicles, and zero-carbon industry, as well as nature-based carbon offsets.

Stepping-stone experiment

The EU-funded UK project this week set a new record for sustained fusion energy, doubling the length of time it was sustained by the same facility in 1997.

The fusion was sustained for five seconds, longer than the fraction-of-a-second fusion achieved at the DOE's National Ignition Facility last year.

The work to create an energy source from nuclear fusion, the process that illuminates stars, was carried out using the Joint European Torus (JET) device at a center run by the UK Atomic Energy Authority.

Past work at the UK facility has been carried out collaboratively with researchers planning the first commercial-scale fusion machine, the ITER tokamak in St. Paul-les-Durance in France, and is also a collaboration of 35 countries including China, India, Japan, South Korea, Russia, and the US.

Backers of the 40-year old ITER project originally envisaged it would become the first demonstration-scale fusion reactor when it produces "first plasma" in November 2025, but this has reportedly been delayed to 2026 or 2027 due to late component deliveries. The same milestone was also delayed in 2016.

"The experiments at JET are absolutely crucial stepping-stones towards realizing commercial fusion power," Martin Freer, a nuclear physicist and Director of the Birmingham Energy Institute (BEI) at the University of Birmingham, told Net-Zero Business Daily.

The main upshot of the recent breakthrough is that it builds confidence that the larger ITER experiment in France will be successful in showing commercial fusion power stations are possible, he said. But he warned that it was "not all plain sailing" as engineers and researchers still must show that energy created via fusion can also be efficiently extracted.

In September, American company Commonwealth Fusion Systems and researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology said they tested the "world's strongest high-temperature superconducting magnet." That project is looking to demonstrate a 200-MW nuclear fusion power plant by 2030.

The researchers expect that nuclear fusion could generate power at 5 cents per kilowatt-hour, the approximate price of solar power.

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