December 21, 2020 at 6:54 am

In the U.K., energy developers are making plans to choose a site for the world’s first fusion power plant

By Sandesh Ilhe

In the U.K., energy developers are making plans to choose a site for the world’s first fusion power plant. As with most fusion projects, this milestone is likely at least a decade away, and the site in question will be less than one half square mile—not exactly a high bar to clear, though complicated by its need to be adjacent to the existing grid.

But is this actually a real step, or is just energy pageantry?

There’s bureaucracy at play here, first and foremost. Getting far ahead of choosing sites is smart, especially when a fusion power plant will be one of the very first of its kind in the world. That means making new regulatory materials, doing environmental suitability testing, and much, much more. This site will theoretically hold the Spherical Tokamak for Energy Production (STEP), a next-generation tokamak fusion reactor planned for breaking ground in 2030 and productive fusion in 2040. (That’s the concept art above.)

STEP itself has been in the works for a decade, with previous efforts followed by a fallow period and a series of conceptual renovations. Now, its makers say, it’s the most cutting-edge tokamak design in the running for the first feasible fusion power plant idea.

That said, planning and building it is still expected to cost more than $2.5 billion. New Scientist reports that experts say the cost per megawatt of this plant is five times what a traditional fission plant costs.

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The idea of site selection is, interestingly, one of the key ways fusion and fission applications differ. We pay a great deal of attention to the technology that powers these plants, which is good, but their operating costs often come down to simple logistics that must be covered. In lightwater reactors that can theoretically melt down, much of the cost of construction, maintenance, and even staffing is around the issue of containment. Layers of redundant safety are built out and out and out from the reactor that powers the plant.

Many of today’s cutting-edge small reactor concepts are “innately safe” by design, using physics and even materials to create reactors that shut themselves down—not ones that must be enveloped in concentric containments. Fusion reactors, which reach temperatures in the millions of degrees, have created an entire new field of reactor safety. That paradigm must be built from the ground up.

The extremely high temperatures make fusion reactors sound crazy dangerous, when in reality, it’s just made them extremely energy-inefficient so far. But a “meltdown” in a fusion reactor would still release a great deal of radioactive material, likely in the form of tritium based on the designs in play right now.

Tritium is a radioactive isotope of hydrogen, meaning not only will it cause radioactive destruction, but the hydrogen atoms will also readily bond with almost everything they touch.

So choosing the site sounds easy, but the process to both choose and approve it will involve a lot more than just buying real estate next to the power lines. Now is the time to make these plans, because having them in place when someone reaches fusion ignition will help shorten the runway to the first working fusion power plant.

Sandesh Ilhe

With an Engineers degree in Advanced Database Management and Information Security, Sandesh brings the deep understanding of the digital world to the table. His articles reflect the challenges and the complexities that come along with every disruption in the industry. He carries over six years of experience on working with websites and ensuring that the right article reaches the right reader.

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