Fusion Emerges as a Key Factor in UK’s Energy Future

  • General Fusion to Break Ground for a Pilot Plant in the UK in Three Years
  • UKAEA Posts List of 15 Candidate Sites for Fusion Reactors
  • IAEA’s Grossi Calls For International Cooperation On Pilot Plant Criteria
  • TerraPower Targets 2023 for Natrium NRC Construction Permit
  • Centrus Gets NRC License for HALEU Production

The energy landscape in the UK changed this week for the better as a fusion energy startup funded in part by billionaire Jeff Bezos launched an effort to build a pilot fusion reactor capable of generating electricity by the mid-2020s.

Bezo’s firm General Fusion, which is based in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, made the announcement in London saying that a $400M demonstration plant to prove the operational features of the design would break ground in 2022 at a site in Oxfordshire near the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy. Operations are expected to being within three years of breaking ground.

The UK Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA) and General Fusion announced the agreement under which General Fusion will build and operate its Fusion Demonstration Plant (FDP).  Backed by Jeff Bezos for over a decade, the company raised $100m in its last round of funding and is preparing to go back to investors for more cash to show that the firm’s technology can be successfully scaled up.

The FDP will demonstrate General Fusion’s proprietary Magnetized Target Fusion (MTF) technology, paving the way for the company’s subsequent commercial pilot plant. The MTF approach is different to the tokamak approach used, for example, in JET, MAST Upgrade and ITER, but UKAEA and General Fusion expect to collaborate on a range of technologies of mutual interest.

General Fusion will benefit from the cluster of fusion supply chain activities in the UK, centered on UKAEA’s globally recognized expertise and presence in the field. This is also an exciting and very positive development for UKAEA and the Culham site; strongly aligned with UKAEA’s mission and the development of the Culham site as a leading location for developing fusion energy and a key location for the nascent ‘UK fusion cluster’.

The announcement was made by Amanda Solloway MP, Science Minister for the UK Government, who said: “This new plant by General Fusion is a huge boost for our plans to develop a fusion industry in the UK, and I’m thrilled that Culham will be home to such a cutting-edge and potentially transformative project.”

The Fusion Demonstration Plant at Culham is the culmination of almost two decades of advances in General Fusion’s technology. The firm said the announcement represents a major milestone on the company’s path to commercialization.

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Conceptual Image of Fusion Demonstration Plant. Image: GF

“Coming to Culham gives us the opportunity to benefit from UKAEA’s expertise,” stated Christofer Mowry, CEO, General Fusion.

“By locating at this campus, General Fusion expands our market presence beyond North America into Europe, broadening our global network of government, institutional, and industrial partners. This is incredibly exciting news for not only General Fusion, but also the global effort to develop practical fusion energy.”

About General Fusion’s Technology

The company uses an approach called magnetized target fusion. In this process, a super-heated gas called a plasma, consisting of a particular form of hydrogen, is injected into a cylinder which is surrounded by a wall of liquid lithium metal. (YouTube video)

A bank of 500 pneumatic pistons are then used to compress the plasma until the atoms fuse, generating massive amounts of heat. This heat is transferred by the liquid metal, and used in a steam generator to make steam to drive a turbine which in turn will produce electricity.

general fusion

Conceptual Image for General Fusion Design. Image: GF

General Fusion says its approach of leveraging the use of existing industrial technologies such as pneumatic pistons, and not relying on large, superconducting magnets or expensive lasers, means the firm has a quicker path to developing a reliable supply chain. In turn the firm says it will make its fusion reactor easier to manufacture and scale from demonstration to pilot to commercial form than other fusion technologies.

The pilot plant will produce 115 MWe of electricity, which is comparable to a small modular (fission) reactor.  One of the intended uses of a plant of this size is to stabilize the electric grid which is also carrying intermittent sources of renewable power like wind and solar energy.

Synergy for General Fusion with the Culham Site

The Culham campus is owned and managed by the UK Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA) and is also the location of major fusion research efforts: the Joint European Torus (Jet) and Mast Upgrade.

“Coming to Culham gives us the opportunity to benefit from UKAEA’s expertise,” said Christofer Mowry, the CEO of General Fusion. Mowry, who previously led the SMR effort at BWXT in a joint effort with TVA in the U.S..

He added, “By locating at this campus, General Fusion expands our market presence beyond North America into Europe, broadening our global network of government, institutional, and industrial partners.”

The decision to locate the demonstration plant in Oxfordshire was made possible by funding from the UK government, with the monetary amount described by Christofer Mowry in wire agency reports as “very meaningful”.

Although a government spokesperson from UKAEA declined to provide a figure, the agency has published data showing the government’s current commitment of £222m for the UKAEA’s Spherical Tokamak for Energy Production (Step) program, which aims to design and build the world’s first prototype fusion power plant by 2040.

Last November, U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson offered $17 billion in support for green industries including nuclear power. His government wants an operating fusion plant based on the ITER design by 2040.

Other Fusion Startups are in the Mix

The Bloomberg wire service reported that globally, more than $1.5 billion has poured into private fusion startups such as TAE Technologies Inc. and Commonwealth Fusion Systems in the U.S.

According to the wire service, public funding from 35 countries has gone toward the $22 billion International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) being built in southern France. The project was supposed to begin testing in four years, though that date is now in doubt after pandemic lockdowns snarled supply chains.

“There are a lot of people preparing to take shots on goal right now,” Fusion CEO Mowry said in an interview with the BBC. “We now have the first best but there are lots of others lining up.”

U.S. Government Calls for a National Fusion Effort

General Fusion’s announcement follows a call in April by the U.S. National Academies of Science (NAS) for the country to accelerate plans to build a pilot fusion reactor capable of generating electricity as soon as 2035.

In February 2021 the NAS said the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and private industry should invest now in order to have an operational fusion pilot plant in the 2035-2040 time frame, says Bringing Fusion to the U.S. Grid, a new report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. These investments are urgently needed to resolve open technical and scientific issues as well as to design, construct, and commission a pilot plant.

The new report identifies key goals and innovations needed to support the development of a U.S. fusion pilot plant. Many of these innovations, including advancements in confinement of the plasma, extraction of heat, ensuring sustained structural integrity of the power plant components, and closing the fuel cycle, should be developed in parallel in order to meet the challenge of operating a pilot plant between 2035 and 2040.

The plant will be “a huge boost for our plans to develop a fusion industry,” U.K. Science Minister Amanda Solloway said in a statement on Thursday. “Fusion energy has great potential as a source of limitless, low-carbon energy.”

UKAEA Posts List of 15 Candidate Sites for Fusion Reactor

The UK Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA) announced last week that 15 sites are in consideration to become the future home of Step – the Spherical Tokamak for Energy Production – the UK’s prototype fusion plant.

The UKAEA said in a statement that acceptance of the sites, spread across the UK, into the agency’s assessment process does not mean they are preferred or desired, or that their development is possible in all cases.

The agency said the next stage of the process will include a technical assessment of the comparative suitability of the sites, with a shortlist expected to be drawn in the autumn of this year. A final decision on the site is scheduled to be made by the end of 2022.

Step is an ambitious program to design and construct a fusion energy prototype plant. It is a UKAEA program with an initial £222m funding from the UK government to produce a concept design by 2024. Step will be used to research and develop the technology and enable a fleet of commercial plants to follow in the years after 2040.

IAEA’s Grossi Calls For International Cooperation On Pilot Plant Criteria

(NucNet) The International Atomic Energy Agency is working on the establishment of a technology-neutral framework for fusion reactor safety and “stands ready” to offer a feasibility study that encompasses the full scope of fusion pilot plant criteria for future fusion reactors, director-general Rafael Grossi told the 28th IAEA Fusion Energy Conference.

In his opening remarks to the virtual event, Mr Grossi called on agency member states sponsoring fusion programs, the emerging fusion industry and the increasing number of private partners to support and jointly participate in the feasibility study, calling it an “international endeavor”.

He said the IAEA is working on the establishment of a technology-neutral framework for safety to help harmonize international approaches to fusion reactors on the basis of existing agency safety standards.

“Although fusion reactors are inherently safe, the ultimate goal when it comes to regulation remains the same: ensuring the protection of people and the environment by minimizing the risks of radioactive releases under normal operation and accident conditions,” he said.

Increased publicly and privately funded research and development, including emerging examples of public-private partnerships, demonstrate growing trust in fusion as a promising option to provide a sustainable, worldwide supply of energy for centuries to come, Mr Grossi said.

Mr Grossi told a press conference  that 94 fusion devices are being developed, with 85 of them public-funded projects and nine private.

He said $1bn has been invested in the projects and increasing amounts of capital are being raised. “What is clear is that the capital investment is the result of market forces and not public policy,” he said. “Some actors do not want to be left out of what is coming.”

“It is time to dispel the idea that fusion is an academic endeavor in pursuit of an energy unicorn,” said International Atomic Energy Agency Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi. “We can see this is around the corner. We are approaching this moment fast.”

TerraPower Targets 2023 for Natrium NRC Construction Permit

In a press statement TerraPower said it hopes to apply for a Part 50 construction permit in August 2023 and an operating license in March 2026 for its Natrium fast reactor, according to a regulatory engagement plan (REP) it has sent on June 8, 2021, to the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC).

The company said it has chosen to submit separate applications rather than a combined license for “the ability to start construction earlier.”

The firm said in its submission to the NRC that the purpose of the REP is “to reduce regulatory uncertainty,”  and, “to facilitate the NRC’s understanding of Natrium technology and its safety case as early in the regulatory process as possible.”

TerraPower and GE-Hitachi joined forces in 2019 to develop the Natrium technology, which is a sodium-cooled fast reactor combined with a molten salt energy storage system. The ratings for the Natrium reactor will be 840 MWt and the energy island will have the capability to produce up to 500 MWe.

Earlier this month, TerraPower and PacifiCorp announced plans to construct a Natrium reactor demonstration project at a coal plant in the state of Wyoming. The firms expect to announce the specific site by the end of this year. The project is partially funded under the Department of Energy’s Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program via a cost sharing method. So far the government has provided the project with $80M.

TerraPower and GEH are backed by Bechtel Power Corporation and utility partners Energy Northwest, Duke Energy, and PacifiCorp. Private sector investors other than billionaires Bill Gates and Warren Buffet have not been disclosed by the firm.

The demonstration project in Wyoming is intended to validate the design, construction and operational features of the Natrium technology. TerraPower said the next steps include further project evaluation, education and outreach, and state and federal regulatory approvals prior to acquisition of a Natrium facility.

Centrus Gets NRC License to Produce HALEU Fuel

Centrus Energy Corp. (NYSE American: LEU) announced that the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) approved the Company’s license amendment request to produce High-Assay, Low-Enriched Uranium (HALEU) at the Piketon, Ohio, enrichment facility.

The Piketon plant is now the only U.S. facility licensed to enrich uranium up to 20 percent Uranium-235 (U-235) and expects to begin demonstrating HALEU production early next year.

“This approval is a major milestone in our contract with the Department of Energy,” said Daniel B. Poneman, Centrus President and CEO.

HALEU-based fuels will be required for most of the advanced reactor designs currently under development and may also be utilized in next-generation fuels for the existing fleet of reactors in the United States and around the world.

Developers of nine of the ten advanced reactor designs selected for funding under the Department of Energy’s Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program, including the two demonstration reactors, TerraPower and X-Energy, have said they will rely on HALEU-based fuels.

Under a 2019 contract with the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Nuclear Energy, Centrus is constructing a cascade of sixteen AC100M centrifuges – a U.S.-origin technology – to demonstrate production of HALEU.

The three year, $115 million, cost-shared contract runs through mid-2022. The NRC license was granted for the period of the DOE contract. Centrus recently released an update on progress of construction for the demonstration cascade and anticipates completing performance under the contract in early 2022. If sufficient funding is provided to continue operation, the license can be amended to extend the term.

What is HALEU?

When uranium ore is extracted from the earth, the concentration of the fissile isotope uranium-235 is less than one percent. Most existing reactors in the United States and worldwide operate on Low-Enriched Uranium (LEU) fuel that has been enriched to a concentration of the U-235 isotope of slightly less than 5 percent.

High-Assay Low-Enriched Uranium is further enriched so that the U-235 concentration is between 5 percent and 20 percent. This level of enrichment is still far below the levels used to produce weapons or power U.S. Navy vessels.

HALEU offers unique advantages as an advanced nuclear fuel for both existing and next generation reactors, including greater power density, improved reactor performance, fewer refueling outages, improved proliferation resistance, and smaller volumes of waste.

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