By Cheryl Burgess.
Featured picture shows an image of a fusion reactor. Credit: The UK Atomic Energy Authority.
There has been recent press coverage about a breakthrough by scientists working on the development of nuclear fusion, considered by some to potentially pave the way for the production of ‘virtually unlimited supplies of low-carbon, low-radiation energy’. The Joint European Torus (JET) project, at Culham in Oxfordshire, has been working on this approach for nearly 40 years. For the last ten years, it has worked in tandem with the ITER facility in southern France, which is supported by a consortium of world governments, including from EU member states, the US, China and Russia. The aim of both initiatives is to prove that nuclear fusion can become a reliable energy provider and be up and running by the second half of this century. Clearly, the science has a long (and extremely expensive) way to go before it can, if viable, become the answer to global energy deficits.
Closer to home, these developments could have particular significance for us here in North Ayrshire. The Ardeer Peninsula, near Stevenston, is one of a short-list of five areas across the UK (and the only one in Scotland) being considered as the site for a prototype nuclear fusion power plant, known as STEP (Spherical Tokamak for Energy Production). Thanks in part to a public information campaign by Ayrshire CND, the mainstream media is now giving this proposal more coverage (Nuclear fusion power plant plan sparks fierce debate, The Arran Banner 11/2/22) and some of the counter-arguments to the positive spin which the UK Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA) has, not surprisingly, generated about it so far are now being aired.
The science behind nuclear fusion
Put simply, fusion is the process which goes on inside the sun and by which energy is created when atoms are forced together. Nuclear fusion is an attempt to replicate the processes of the Sun here on Earth. It is the opposite of the process used by standard nuclear reactors which rely on fission and which involves breaking atoms apart. In the core of the Sun, huge gravitational pressures allow this to happen at temperatures of around 10 million Celsius. At the much lower pressures that are possible on Earth, temperatures to produce fusion need to be much higher – above 100 million Celsius.
No materials exist that can withstand direct contact with such heat. So, to achieve fusion in a lab, scientists have devised a solution in which a super-heated gas, or plasma, is held inside a doughnut-shaped magnetic field.
The UK-based JET laboratory has smashed its own world record for the amount of energy it can extract by squeezing together two forms of hydrogen, deuterium and tritium, which together form the heating plasma. The experiments produced 59 megajoules of energy over five seconds (11 megawatts of power) – only enough to boil about 60 kettles’ worth of water but more than double what was achieved in similar tests back in 1997. While this might sound like a small step over a long period, the scientists involved believe that it validates design choices that have been made for an even bigger fusion reactor now being constructed in France.
On the face of it, it would seem that this technology could have huge potential at some point in the future. However, we don’t have 40 years to wait for an uncertain technology when we have safer, cheaper and less complex solutions which could be used to greater effect now.
Balancing the potential with the risks
Clearly, there are many technical challenges in the development of nuclear fusion, the magnitude of which becomes clear when we learn that, in Europe alone, some 5,000 science and engineering experts from across the EU, Switzerland and Ukraine are working on the technology. It is eye-wateringly expensive.
Fusion is viewed as safe and clean but has so far proved difficult to harness. Critics have said there are still huge hurdles to overcome and some experts believe existing, proven renewable technologies offer a more economical and timely way of meeting our power needs and, in the process, tackling climate change.
A key ingredient, tritium, is in short supply and the technology required to make it through nuclear fission is not yet viable.
“Fusion takes a long time, it is complex, it is difficult,” said Dr Athina Kappatou. “This is why we have to ensure that from one generation to the next, there are the scientists, there are the engineers and the technical staff who can take things forward.”
Scientists have been working on nuclear fusion for over 50 years but have never successfully generated more energy than they put in. There is evidence that this deficit can be overcome in the future as the plasmas are scaled up. ITER’s toroidal vessel volume will be 10 times that of JET and the hope is that the energy input and output will break even. The commercial power plants that come after should then show a net gain that could be fed into electricity grids. But the need for carbon-free energy is urgent, particularly if the UK is to reach its Net-Zero emissions target by 2035.
The cost of building the prototype plant, wherever it is situated, will make the cost of any electricity it produces many times more expensive than off-shore wind generation. And just building the reactor would lead to a large carbon footprint, with no energy being produced until the 2040s at the earliest.
There are also financial and security considerations which would exist beyond the life of the plant. During its lifetime and beyond, the nuclear plant would require security which would restrict public access to the peninsula and beach. After use the radioactive building could not be dismantled and would require monitoring and security for many decades.
The Ardeer site
At the Public Meeting held in Irvine in January this year questions from the public were answered by Fusion Forward Consortium members which include experts from the University of Glasgow and North Ayrshire Council members. The full questions and answers can be found at the link below and are comprehensive:
The reasons given for the potential choice of the Ardeer site include its large size, its closeness to population centres and its proximity to the sea. Ironically, these were reasons that many who spoke against the use of the Ardeer site felt made it unsuitable. While the experts were at pains to talk about how safe the plant would be, there must be some unknowns when ‘scaling up’ from tiny to large amounts of nuclear fusion. Members of the public expressed worries about the proximity of an existing explosives factory and possible site contamination.
While the site would be relatively small, local people were concerned about the loss of amenity, as well as the loss of habitat in an area where natural vegetation and regeneration which has taken place since its previous use as an industrial site. The experts conceded that the closeness of the site to the sea with associated coastal erosion would require enhanced sea defences.
There are currently proposals for major investment in the North Ayrshire area, including on the Ardeer peninsula. These include an International Marine Science and Environmental Centre, redevelopment of Irvine and Ardrossan Harbours for marine tourism and a Community Renewable Energy Project (see link below). It’s hard to see how this sits comfortably with a nuclear fusion development requiring high security.
Arthur West of Ayrshire CND said ‘After years of worry about cracks in the nuclear reactors at Hunterston, it is very disappointing North Ayrshire Council is supporting the development of another nuclear facility at Ardeer. The respected Nuclear Free Local Authorities organisation, which includes councils such as Glasgow, Edinburgh, Dundee and East Ayrshire, is opposed to nuclear fusion, labelling it a distraction from the need to continue developing renewable energy sources’.
Given that the UK Government was happy to site a base for nuclear-warhead carrying submarines on the Clyde, it would probably be content to tuck a prototype power plant away in a convenient corner of the firth too. Perhaps its time that an estuary on English soil became the home for this latest experiment.
What happens next
A Fusion Forward Ardeer Consortium (University of Glasgow, North Ayrshire Council and NPL, the UK’s leading group of privately-owned brownfield regeneration, remediation and land development companies) is taking this project forward.
Visits to all the short-listed sites by UKAEA will take place over the next few months, following which a recommendation about the preferred site will be made. The plan is then for further public consultation and specialist site surveys.
What you can do
‘Leon Flexman from UKAEA said: ‘If there was a huge outcry against fusion coming …. we would give it consideration’
If you are worried about the siting of a prototype nuclear facility on the Firth of Clyde please help by doing the following:
1. Make a HUGE OUTCRY and suggest better alternatives
2. Take part in any and all public consultation
3. Sign the petition
4. Write to the local council, MP and MSPs. North Ayrshire Council and one local MP are in favour, primarily because of employment promises.
5. Tell everyone about the fusion plant. Share the facts in person, in conventional and social media.
If you are worried about the science behind the plant and the building of the protype, wherever it might be, the UKAEA can be contacted here: