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Government Looking For A Home For The UK's First Fusion Reactor

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Jack Dunhill

author

Jack Dunhill

Social Media Coordinator and Staff Writer

Jack is a Social Media Coordinator and Staff Writer for IFLScience, with a degree in Medical Genetics specializing in Immunology.

Social Media Coordinator and Staff Writer

The STEP design aimed for use. Credit: UKAEA

The UK has invited local communities to volunteer to home the UK's first nuclear fusion reactor. Although still many years from completion, a fusion reactor would provide almost limitless energy while producing minimal waste, a long sought after idea by scientists worldwide.

The Spherical Tokamak for Energy Production (STEP) prototype will utilize the latest in fusion technology. The team hope to begin construction in 2030 and have the plant producing power by 2040. The STEP program is an ambitious UK effort to create a prototype fusion plant, with £222 million allocated so far to start development.

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“We want the UK to be a trailblazer in developing fusion energy by capitalising on its incredible potential as a limitless clean energy source that could last for generations to come,” said Business and Energy Secretary Alok Sharma in a statement.

“Communities across the country have an incredible opportunity to secure their place in the history books as the home of STEP, helping the UK to be the first country in the world to commercialise fusion and creating thousands of highly skilled jobs to drive our green industrial revolution.”
 
The deadline for community applications closes in March 2021 – so who knows, the tokamak could be built in a town near you in the future.
 
Nuclear fusion power is considered one of the most promising options for large-scale clean energy. Currently, there are 440 nuclear reactors worldwide that utilize fission reactions to create electricity – that is to split an atom into two smaller nuclei, releasing energy that can be used to heat water into steam to turn turbines.
 
Nuclear fusion is functionally the opposite. Instead of splitting an atom, fusion is the process of combining two atoms together to create heavier nuclei, which in turn releases vast amounts of energy. These reactions occur constantly in the Sun and other stars, but require intense conditions to occur – in the case of hydrogen fusion, around 100 million degrees Celsius (180 million Fahrenheit). As it turns out, reaching these temperatures is no easy feat.
 
Currently, the best chance at nuclear fusion that exists is within a tokamak. Tokamaks are devices that produce plasma through extreme heat and confine the plasma using powerful magnetic fields. A fusion reactor requires fuel that is more readily available compared to fission reactors and has far fewer concerns of uncontrolled radiation, according to Science Magazine.
 
Unfortunately, as amazing as "free clean energy" sounds, fusion reactors are still a long way from commercial use. Creating the intense temperatures needed for fusion is extremely expensive, so much so that the energy produced is not worth the cost with current technology. The dream for nuclear physicists is so-called "cold fusion", where fusion reactions are created at low temperatures, theoretically providing near-unlimited energy, but this idea has proved far more difficult to actualize than previously thought.
 
This week has been quite the week for fusion energy, as shortly after the UK revealed their plans, China has started up their fusion tokamak, affectionately called an 'artificial sun'. So far, no tokamaks have been able to produce viable amounts of energy for the exorbitant costs.
 
For now, the UK is surging forward with their STEP program. Currently, £1.4 billion has been gained by the economy as a result of fusion research, and the UK hopes to lead the way in the production of fusion power – whenever that may be. 

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