Inside the construction of the ITER reactor

The UK government has declined an invitation to become an official member of the ITER nuclear fusion experiment, having lost access to the project following Brexit. Instead, it plans to focus on UK-based fusion efforts, both public and private.

ITER, the world’s largest fusion experiment, is under construction in France and is expected to be completed in 2025 after many delays. The project is being funded by a huge international collaboration including China, India, Japan, Russia, South Korea, the US and the European Union.

The UK did have access to ITER through the EU, but, since Brexit, has fallen outside of it. Negotiations with the EU have subsequently seen announcements that the UK would rejoin Horizon Europe, a joint scientific research effort, but not Euratom, which focuses on nuclear power.

The head of Euratom Research, Elena Righi, seemingly called for the UK to officially rejoin the ITER experiment this week, but the UK government has said it stands by its decision to step down and believes private sector investment in fusion research will be a more efficient and cost-effective path to commercial reactors.

Righi was speaking at an event in Oxfordshire, UK, to celebrate the achievements of the JET fusion reactor, which was permanently shut down late last year and will now be decommissioned.

“The Commission and the Council of the EU, in a joint statement, noted with regret that the United Kingdom decided not to associate to the Euratom programme and the Fusion for Energy joint undertaking,” said Righi. “For the next period starting in 2028, the EU institutions called emphatically [for] the UK to participate in all the four programmes [ITER plus the European Commission’s three other large-scale fusion research projects].”

“This will allow a truly European fusion community to continue its integrated efforts and to resolve the current ambiguous participation of the UKAEA [UK Atomic Energy Authority] to EUROfusion [the European fusion research group] and enable the UK’s fuller integration in the construction and operation eventually of ITER.”

New Scientist asked the European Commission to clarify Righi’s statement, but received no response.

At the same event, Andrew Bowie, the UK minister responsible for nuclear energy, told New Scientist that the UK stands by its decision not to rejoin the effort, as doing so freed up £650 million, which can be instead used to fund a mix of private and public research.

“For all the experiments, for all the research, for all great work here at JET, the ultimate aim of all of this is to get fusion onto the grid, generating power into homes and businesses,” says Bowie. “To make it a commercial reality, to bring the power of the sun into peoples’ homes, we’re going to need significant buy-in from the private sector as well.”

“The decision not to reassociate was the right one. We had, here in the UK, moved to such a place that reassociating would divert, we believe, time and resource and money away from where we wanted to take our fusion projects. It’s not that there was an ideological decision not to reassociate, it was a practical decision,” he says.

Bowie says that the UK can get more bang for its buck from private sector investment, but is “very open” to finding new ways of collaborating with ITER, such as personnel exchanges. “We’re not saying no to working with ITER,” he says. Bowie also explicitly ruled out an official re-entry to the ITER project: “We stand by that decision.”

The UK is also developing plans for the Spherical Tokamak for Energy Production (STEP), a nuclear fusion power station, which it hopes will create plasma by 2035 and reach net energy gain – where more power is created than input – five years later.

Juan Matthews at the University of Manchester’s Dalton Nuclear Institute in the UK says that spherical reactors like STEP, if successful, offer the promise of smaller and cheaper fusion power than large designs like ITER, which is experiencing its own problems.

“It’s continually being delayed,” says Matthews. “It’s got the big project syndrome where things are just not coming in on time and costs are going up. The STEP initiative, and losing contact with ITER, could be an impetus which would result in [the UK] demonstrating power generation earlier than Europe. I’m very optimistic about the use of spherical tokamaks.”


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