Two sites in Scotland are preparing to bid to host the world’s first nuclear fusion power station, The Ferret can reveal.
Dounreay in Caithness and Chapelcross in Dumfries and Galloway have expressed interest in the construction of a multi-billion-pound prototype reactor aimed at producing electricity from hydrogen. Previous nuclear plants are currently being decommissioned at both sites.
But environmentalists say that nuclear fusion is “pie in the sky” and will result in radioactive waste. They argue it is a “distraction” from urgent efforts to try and cut climate pollution.
Developers, however, brand nuclear fusion as “one of the world’s cleanest and lowest carbon forms of energy”. The Scottish Government says it needs to know more about the costs, safety and effectiveness of the technology.
Nuclear fusion has been the Holy Grail for some in the nuclear industry for decades. It is very different from the nuclear fission that generates electricity in existing reactors such as those at Hunterston in North Ayrshire and Torness in East Lothian.
Fission involves splitting atoms of uranium to generate heat to turn turbines to produce power. Fusion aims to replicate reactions in the sun by forcing together hydrogen atoms to form helium and release heat.
But the process requires substantial energy to superheat the hydrogen, and then to control the resulting plasma with huge magnets. A small experimental JET fusion reactor at Culham in Oxfordshire has consumed more energy than it has produced.
Now the UK Atomic Energy Authority, based at Culham, wants to build a prototype fusion reactor to generate a surplus of 100 megawatts of electricity. In December 2020 it invited bids by 31 March from communities across the UK to provide a site of 100 hectares or more for the reactor, known as Spherical Tokamak for Energy Production (STEP).
The plan has been backed by the UK Government, which has promised £222 million for STEP. No overall cost has been given for the project, though £2 billion has reportedly been suggested, with critics saying it will be much higher.
The Scottish Government confirmed that the two existing nuclear sites, Dounreay and Chapelcross, had expressed interest in bidding to host STEP. Three other sites in England are also understood to be interested.
Dounreay, on the north coast near Thurso, is where plutonium fast breeder reactors were developed from 1955 and then abandoned in 1994 as uneconomic. Its multiple facilities are currently being decommissioned.
Dounreay’s potential bid is being led by the Caithness and North Sutherland Regeneration Partnership, which brings together government and business. Highland Council said it was “considering the possibility of a bid being submitted” and a report would be discussed by councillors on 25 March.
Chapelcross, near Annan, was the site of a nuclear power station that also produced plutonium and tritium for nuclear weapons. It is also being decommissioned.
Campaigners, councillors and scientists all expressed concerns about the planned fusion reactor. “The nuclear industry continues in desperation to promote new nuclear projects,” said Tor Justad, chair of Highlands Against Nuclear Transport.
“Nuclear fusion is another pie in the sky proposal first proposed in the 1920’s. With many projects and millions of dollars spent since then the prospect is no nearer than it was then.”
He described fusion as “the energy source of the future and always will be”. It produced radioactive waste, and was “very demanding” to build and operate, he claimed.
Friends of the Earth Scotland argued money would be much better spent on energy efficiency and renewables. “Fusion reactors in Scotland are just a distraction from the urgent green energy investments we should be making,” said the environmental group’s director, Dr Richard Dixon.
“Even if there really is a breakthrough, the scale proposed is only a tenth of the generating capacity of the big offshore wind farms being constructed right now.”
According to the 50-strong group of UK nuclear-free local authorities (NFLA), a fusion reactor would not benefit Scotland’s carbon reduction plans. “Scotland does not need any new nuclear in its energy mix and it has done much better without it,” said NFLA Scotland vice convenor and Renfrewshire SNP councillor, Audrey Doig.
Scientists for Global Responsibility criticised the UK’s Government’s emphasis on “speculative” nuclear technologies. “Nuclear fusion will almost certainly make no contribution to reaching climate targets,” said the campaign group’s director, Dr Stuart Parkinson.
The Scottish Government sounded a note of scepticism. “We know that advocates for fusion energy argue that it could potentially support decarbonisation,” a spokesperson told The Ferret.
“However we need to know much more about the costs, safety and effectiveness of the technology. A comprehensive assessment of the fusion reactor’s potential environmental impacts would, in line with legislation and regulations, require an environmental impact assessment of any proposed development.”
Such an assessment would only be needed if a specific project was proposed in Scotland. “We are aware of interest in potential expressions of interest on the part of Dounreay and Chapelcross in developing a prototype fusion plant as part of a Spherical Tokamak for Energy Production (STEP) competition,” the government spokesperson added.
The Caithness and North Sutherland Regeneration Partnership confirmed that it was exploring a potential application. “The partnership will decide by the end of the month whether to go ahead with an application,” said its manager, Peter Faccenda.
“Fusion technology would be one of the world’s cleanest and lowest carbon forms of energy. It seeks to replicate the energy production process of the sun by fusing hydrogen into helium, producing huge amounts of clean energy.”
The UK Atomic Energy Authority declined to name any sites that had expressed interest. “The bidding process is open till the end of March,” said a spokesperson.
“After that point, we’ll undertake an initial assessment and aim to publish details of nominated sites later this year. STEP will be a net energy-producing fusion plant, capable of putting electricity on the grid.”
The authority’s spokesperson added: “We see fusion as complementary to renewables, not in competition with them. We will need a range of technologies to meet the world’s growing energy demand while replacing fossil fuels.
“Fusion has the potential to give us a long-term supply of abundant low-carbon energy. It would provide an ideal form of baseload electricity to accompany renewable sources, and we are now in a position to begin designing power plants.”
Dumfries and Galloway Council declined to comment, as did the government agencies that operate the Dounreay and Chapelcross sites.
Cover image thanks to UK Atomic Energy Authority.