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UK Conservatives announce GBP200 million for fusion plant

London — The UK's ruling Conservative Party has pledged GBP200 million ($246 million) towards funding a commercial nuclear fusion power plant in the UK by 2040, according to a statement Sunday by Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Andrea Leadsom.

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A UK Atomic Energy Authority spokesman told S&P Global Platts the funds were separate to the UK's participation via the EU in the global ITER fusion research project in France.

"The Government is determined to invest in the energy sources of the future, providing energy security and lower prices," Leadsom said. "That's why we've announced plans to design, develop and build a fusion power plant by 2040."

An initial GBP200 million investment would support a five-year development phase of a Spherical Tokamak for Energy Production (STEP) machine, setting the UK on a path "to develop and build a commercially viable fusion power plant by 2040," she said.

The funds would go to the state-owned UK Atomic Energy Authority's fusion research center at Culham, England.

The project would help the UK reach a net zero carbon emissions target by 2050, Leadsom said.

ITER 'KEY TO UK FUSION'

The UK participates in the ITER fusion program via the EU's stake in the project. Allocation of Eur6.07 billion ($6.6 billion) of EU money has been proposed by the European Commission for 2021-2027.

Culham Centre for Fusion Energy's spokesman Nick Holloway said the center hoped to stay in the ITER program after Brexit, and that the new funds were separate to that decision.

ITER is building the world's first industrial-scale demonstration fusion plant at Cadarache in southern France. The 500 MW experiment is due to go live in 2025.

"It is very important that we stay part of ITER as part of a global collaboration that is central to Culham?s research program," Holloway said.

The ITER machine "is going to be the one that proves fusion can work at industrial scale. What the Conservatives are talking about for 2040 would be an actual power plant, putting electricity on the grid," he said.

On September 16 the government announced a GBP22 million fusion energy research facility in Rotherham.

On August 7, the UKAEA said it would start operating an upgrade to its Mega Amp Spherical Tokamak (MAST) machine in 2020, with peak power injection raised to 12.5 MW.

EUR11 BILLION AND RISING

Spiralling costs at Cadarache put a GBP200 million contribution to development of a UK fusion plant into perspective.

"The Cadarache plant is late and over-budget," Chatham House senior research fellow Antony Froggatt told S&P Global Platts.

"The expected total construction cost in 2001 was Eur5.9 billion at 2008 prices, with the EU contribution estimated at Eur2.7 billion," Froggatt said.

ITER is funded by the EU, China, India, Japan, South Korea, Russia and the US, with Europe contributing 45% of the budget and non-EU partners contributing 9% each.

By 2010, the expected construction cost had risen to over Eur11 billion, with the European Commission proposing that Euratom provide an additional Eur1.4 billion to cover the construction cost shortfall during 2012 and 2013.

"The latest US estimate of the cost of its 9% contribution has risen from $1.1 billion in 2001 to between $4 billion and $6.5 billion today," Froggatt said.

While existing nuclear fission plants split atoms to generate power, fusion generation combines isotopes of hydrogen to make helium, releasing energy in the process.

Despite several demonstration projects, the technique is yet to be proven on a commercial basis due to the need to control heated plasma at very high temperatures, and the significant electrical input required to run a fusion plant.