Power vacuum

The government must fund the creation of a multi-million pound fusion facility or risk the UK being left behind in the drive to develop an abundant and relatively clean energy source, MPs have warned.

A report by theparliamentary science committee warns the UK will lose its position within global fusion research unless urgent action is taken.

Fusion research will enter a new phase in the next few years, with work due to start in 2005 on the International Thermonuclear Reactor (ITER) programme, the aim of which is to build a fusion reactor and the location of which is yet to be decided. Due to a 1997 government decision not to apply for ITER, the Atomic Agency’sCulham Science Centre in Oxfordshire is not in the running.

Furthermore, the Joint European Torus (JET) project, which has been based in the UK for the past 20 years giving local engineers and scientists the opportunity to take a lead in fusion research, will come to an end next year.

As a result of these developments, the UK will no longer be central to the development of nuclear fusion power, said Dr Ian Gibson, chairman of the science committee and Labour MP for Norwich North. To enable the UK to sustain its expertise and contribute meaningfully to ITER, the government should establish a major UK research facility, according to Gibson, who went on to say: ‘There is a lot more to do and JET could be killed off within two years. We want a facility to maximise the UK’s contribution to ITER. I think there are new technologies coming along in which we could and should be world leaders.’

While Gibson was unable to suggest a figure for the cost of establishing such a centre, he made it clear the committee wanted millions in government support rather than thousands.

The DTI said it was aware of the report and would respond later in the year.

State support could mean the expansion of the UK’s Mega Amp Spherical Tokomak project, also based at Culham. Unlike the doughnut-shaped Torus reactor, the Tokomak reactor is spherical. Fusion experts believe the first commercial reactors will be spherical in shape, as such a design allows the reactor to be smaller while providing the same level of performance as the Torus. This could give the UK an industrial edge in the future if the project is given sufficient backing.

Gibson also believes the government should begin lobbying now for the UK to be chosen as the site of the International Fusion Materials Irradiation Facility. This internationally-funded research centre, which is still at the costing stage, will test the materials that could be used to build a fusion reactor capable of remaining operational for up to 30 years.

The IFMIF will use a neutron accelerator to bombard material samples with enough radiation to simulate a full lifetime of use.

Note: The US government’s Sandia National Laboratory claims to have created fusion with its ‘Z’ machine, which uses huge pulses of electricity to generate powerful magnetic fields.

These fields are used to crush tungsten wire, producing x-rays. The x-rays strike the surface of a fuel capsule containing deuterium gas, creating a shockwave that turns the gas into a super dense hot plasma where the atoms fuse, producing neutrons.