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Nuclear Fusion: Technology Risk

The Hazards Forum hosted Nuclear Fusion: Technology Risk as a hybrid event, at the home of the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE), at One Great George Street, London and online. The event was chaired by Dr Lavinia Raganelli, a risk and safety consultant at Corporate Risk Associates.

Our first speaker, Valerie Jamieson, perfectly captures the awesome power of fusion: ‘Go out into the countryside on a clear dark night, you’ll see our galaxy, The Milky Way, home to 100 billion stars. What I see, is 100 billion fusion reactors. Stars shine by fusion.’

This fascinating series of presentations bring fusion down to earth. Collectively, the speakers offer us an overview of the fast-moving fusion industry, especially in the UK; an assessment of fusion’s risks, hazards and regulation; and news on how the government wants to balance safety with innovation. And the speakers added many more insights in the lively Q&A that follows.

This is a summary of some of the key points made by each speaker. For the full story, please watch the webinar and look at the slides. 

Valerie Jamieson is development manager of the Fusion Cluster, UK Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA). She is based at the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy (CEE), in Culham, Oxfordshire.

[at 02:57]

Valerie Jamieson has no doubt that fusion is essential to tackle the climate emergency and fill the energy gap; renewables are great, but we need more. She made the case for fusion being safe, reliable and efficient before turning to the rapidly accelerating growth of an industry that’s working to harness what happens in stars.

(But first came an eloquent description of fusion basics: ‘The extreme temperatures and pressures found inside stars squeezes lightweight atoms – mostly hydrogen and helium – together until they fuse together into heavier atoms. And this process produces energy. Gram for gram, fusion fuels produce more energy than any other fuel. There are several ways to achieve fusion on Earth. Experiments have been doing it for decades now, and the most common approach uses the heavier forms of hydrogen, deuterium and tritium. These fuse to produce helium and neutrons. And it’s the energy from those neutrons that we will use to produce heat and then create steam and generate electricity in the old-fashioned way.’)

Eighty-six fusion experiments are being funded by governments around the world, with another 21 under construction or in planning. And investment is accelerating rapidly; the first survey of private fusion was carried out by UKAEA and Fusion Industry Association in the US. In October, their landmark report, The Global Fusion Industry in 2021, reported declared private funding of $1.9 billion. By May 2022, this had grown to $4.2 billion.

Lots of this money is going into fusion in the UK, with 3 private fusion companies operating here:

  • First Light Fusion, which was spun out from Oxford University
  • Tokamak Energy, which was spun out from UKAEE
  • General Fusion, a Canadian company who chose the UK as a location to build their demonstration power plant.

These companies are taking varied approaches, which is vital for the future of fusion. Valerie said: ‘There are different ways and different technical approaches to achieving fusion. And for me that’s really exciting … this is why I think fusion will work and we’ll get it on the grid … One company has problems with fusion, another company looks at it and thinks, well, “innovation, I see a way around that”.’

Another important factor is the mix of private and public programmes in the UK. When it comes to investment, private companies can’t afford to build massive materials facilities or tritium handling facilities by themselves, but they can test their ideas and innovations by working with UKAEA facilities in Culham, with reduced risk.

Valerie said it was vital to manage the fusion cluster, bringing together different companies and organisations, the supply chain, private fusion, UKAEA and policy makers.

‘By bringing all these people together, the brightest minds and skills, we’re going to be advancing fusion in the UK and get into fusion faster.’

The UK is planning to build a fusion power plant, to be connected to the national grid in the 2040s. Called STEP, it will be a spherical tokomak.

Valerie explained: ‘This programme is also really important for the UK for training, skills and the supply chain. And the private fusion companies look to the public programme and because they see that we have ambitions to build this … that makes them feel more comfortable … The UK is the first country to have a strategy dedicated to fusion energy and the UK has proposed regulations for fusion, which are proportionate.

She concluded: ‘As Michael Capella from General Fusion said, “there’s more expertise within a 10-mile radius of Culham than there is in the whole of Canada”.

Speaker 2

Dr Sally Forbes works in the Fusion Safety Authority, part of the UKAEA.

[at 21:50] 

Sally Forbes wants to make sure the journey for a regulatory framework for fusion is proportionate to the hazards. As the number and size of fusion plants increase, so will the materials that could be hazardous. As fusion transitions from experimental to prototype to commercial, aspects related to safety security environments may change.

She took her audience on a tour of the Fusion Safety Authority, hazards of fusion, and radiological accident scenarios, leading to a discussion about how to create a regulatory framework that is proportionate and pro-innovation.

She said: ‘We’re at a very early stage in developing commercial fusion energy power but plants will be operating … certainly within a couple of decades. We need to start thinking about the regulatory framework and guidance now, and require something that is specific for fusion. That’s so we can input into the design stage of plant.’

The Fusion Safety Authority was established 18 months ago to provide the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS) with technical expertise and advice about fusion regulation.

Sally stressed the value of the authority’s Technology Report: Safety and waste aspects of fusion power plants.

‘This gives a fuller outline of some of the most promising technologies that are proposed for fusion power plants and identifies the main hazards associated with fusion,’ she said. ‘It’s focusing on the radiological side because that is likely to be the driver for the decision on a regulatory framework. It discusses the magnitude and nature of these hazards in relation to fusion power plants.’

Sharing a risk matrix, she described the indicative worst-case consequences of 2 accident scenarios: a breach of primary confinement, such as a vacuum vessel, which leads to inventory venting through filtration; and an additional malfunction that leads to the inventory leading from the building. Neither would require public emergency actions, and the potential worst-case dose was the order of a few millisieverts – about the same amount as a person in the UK gets due to natural background radiation.

‘One thing taken from the report was an unforeseen ‘what if’ event,’ she added. ‘So, this is a hypothetical event with a very large release of pretty much all the radiological inventory, assumed to be complete loss of all the confinement … Even in the worst-case hypothetical scenarios, there should be much less consequence than from an incident at a fission power plant, such as Chernobyl and Fukushima, which had a significant impact for a long time.’

Ending on a positive note, Sally said: ‘We’ve got a very good community forming for fusion safety and regulation both within the UK … but also continuing to grow and utilise this network internationally to seek some kind of international harmonisation on fusion safety and regulation work.’

Speaker 3:

Ellie Campbell is a fusion policy advisor at the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS). She works on developing a regulatory domestic framework for fusion.

[at 41:38] 

‘Towards fusion energy’ is the catchline of what I do’, Ellie Campbell began.

She tracked the progress of the UK Government’s Fusion Regulation Green Paper, which sets out how a regulatory framework for fusion should work, to enable investment and development in fusion.

The Green Paper was published in October, along with a consultation (now closed) asking for views on the proposals, and it got a mention in the Queen’s Speech.

Ellie set out some of the key goals of a fusion strategy.

‘First, STEP production – this is designed to show the commercial viability of fusion energy. It’s not being operated commercially but it is intended to put fusion energy on the grid in the 2040s. This will enable the UK to build a world leading fusion industry, by working internationally, technically and commercially.’

In the UK, the objectives for regulatory fusion energy are:

  • ‘It’s paramount to maintain human environmental protections at all times.’
  • ‘We want people to know what we’re doing and that was a key point in the consultation to make sure people are included.’
  • ‘This is an emerging technology area and we want this regulatory framework to enable innovation.’

There are industrial and radiological hazards, but these can be mitigated by the Health and Safety Executive (HAS).

She outlined the current regulations.

‘Currently in the UK we have the JET facility, the Joint European Tokomak, at Culham, operated by the UKAEA. This is regulated by the Environment Agency (EA) and the HSE. This has worked extremely well for decades and this is widely recognised as being a good fit.’

The government proposes to maintain the existing regulatory framework, sticking with the HSA and the EA or current devolved regulators.

‘We’re going to clarify fusion status within existing nuclear regulations. There was a point at which fusion wasn’t always considered while making nuclear legislation and some things may need clarifying to ensure our regulatory framework stands up. There is still uncertainty with technology, there are still a lot of ways which fusion could potentially work. So, we need to be keeping this regulatory framework under review as we scale fusion up to make it into power plants.’

She said the government would confirm its next steps in the coming weeks with a response to the consultation. 

Q&A

[at 49:45] 

Q: How agile and responsive can nuclear fusion be? How quickly can it adapt?

A: Valerie replied: ‘Thinking about the future, when we’ve cracked fusion and it’s on the grid, I think there are several ways that this could go and it depends which company you talk to. So, for example, Tokomak Energy’s approach is to build small fusion machines. They would like to build lots of small fusion energy plants, which are really agile, that could be turned on and off and connected to the grid … when everyone’s putting their kettles on, it can be generating for you. They’re slightly at odds with the STEP approach … STEP is much, much bigger. So, it’s almost the equivalent of building a massive nuclear reactor as opposed to having the smaller modular reactors.’

Q: The public has got this perception that nuclear is ‘bad’, so how can we make sure that they understand the difference between fission and fusion, with its much lower risk?

A: Sally replied: ‘So as part of the industry I think we understand that the risk will be low and also that the hazards, the actual magnitude of hazards, will be lower, but that doesn’t necessarily mean anything to a concerned member of the public. Let’s not call it ‘nuclear fusion’, let’s just use the word ‘fusion’. I think as an industry worldwide, we’ll have to now start putting a lot of effort into public communication of scientific issues and public communication of risk.’

A: Ellie replied: ‘A public attitude tracker shows people who know more about fusion are more likely to support it. I think that’s a promising sign that when we communicate properly, it comes across well.’ 

Q: If fusion is ever scaled up, is the lack of materials going to become a major pinch point for the world and potentially restrict the pace of change?

A: Valerie replied: ‘There’s a lot of work going on to ensure that it doesn’t happen. Tokomak’s Energy’s approach… needs high temperature superconductors. Where are they going to come from? It’s still a relatively new material and so part of the work we’re going to be doing as an industry is really looking at that and asking ourselves … does the UK need to support a facility that can manufacture high temperature superconducting magnets and materials? Similarly, the neutrons can make the insides of these fusion machines brittle. So, we’re going to have to look for materials that can be resilient against neutrons. We have a materials research facility at UK to address those problems.’

Watch the event video here

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