The government has proposed to give finance of £220 million towards the construction – by 2040 – of a prototype fusion reactor near the existing West Burton power station – located about 20 km north-west of Lincoln and 30 km east of Sheffield.
In view of the government’s precarious finances and the sure-fire certainty that the Tories will lose the next election, this announcement for construction by 2040 is just Tory wishful thinking, and has little chance of becoming a reality. In addition, the fusion plans themselves are a just a pipe dream for many reasons.
It would be a smaller version of the unsuccessful Tokamak prototype (JET) at Culham in Oxfordshire. Why this new project is expected to work when its previous prototype failed is unexplained in official documents. The plan was for the government to choose a site for a prototype, following recommendations of the UK Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA), by 2024. But these plans have been rushed forward without any UKAEA recommendations – to provide a fillip for the Tories’ disastrous party conference.
Nuclear fusion is a dangerous process whereby radioactive hydrogen (tritium) is smashed into another form of hydrogen (deuterium) at massive temperatures and pressures inside a plasma chamber to release much radiation and some heat. The same process occurs in our Sun ….. but the Sun is safely located 93 million miles away.
Formidable technical problems exist with fusion. First they have to get the deuterium-tritium reaction to work continuously: they’ve done this at the JET experimental facility in Culham…. for a few seconds. Then they have to get it to release more energy than used in producing the reaction. This has never successfully happened to date. Then they would have to capture the energy released. JET has never been close.
The plan is to surround the plasma chamber with molten lithium. But the engineering is really invidious: a high vacuum on one side, molten lithium on the other, and billions of high-energy neutrons bombarding the wall each second. They then have to run hot molten lithium through heat exchangers to raise steam for a turbine. Experience with such heat exchangers – molten metal on one side, water on the other – has been disastrous all over the world. The problem is that lithium is extremely flammable, indeed explosive in contact with water or air. Should it ever operate, vast amounts of radioactive gases and radioactive water vapour would be released into the local environment.
The government’s mooted fusion reactor comes with promises of cheap and clean energy to move to a zero-carbon economy, with little radioactive waste and no plutonium by-products for nuclear weapons. However, this government has a bad track record with its promises. So how valid are these claims?
The reality is that a fusion reactor, if ever operated, would produce many radioactive by-products that are far from harmless. In addition, most (around 80%) of the output energy would be in the form of high-energy neutrons which would lead to structural damage, large amounts of radioactive waste and the need for much biological shielding to protect operators and the public nearby. It’s for these reasons, CND remains opposed to these pipe dream plans.
CND Vice-President and scientific advisor Dr Ian Fairlie said: “These rushed plans, are more to do with the Tories’ disastrous party conference, than with dealing with energy matters. Nuclear fusion has many problems to overcome before it could ever be considered feasible. And if it were ever to operate for brief tests, it would result in radioactive contamination in areas near the existing West Burton plant. All in all, this is yet another Tory non-starter.”