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Government details regulation plans for fusion energy in world first

The government is aiming to build a prototype fusion power plant by 2040. Image: Getty

The government is aiming to build a prototype fusion power plant by 2040. Image: Getty

The UK is to become the first country in the world to detail how it would legislate to ensure the safe and effective rollout of fusion energy, the government has claimed.

Its new regulatory proposals are outlined in a new consultation which launched today (1 October).

The government is asking for industry stakeholders and the public to have their say on fusion energy regulation, proposing measures such as maintaining the existing regulatory approach to operational permitting of fusion facilities, stating that the radiological hazard of a fusion power plant will be increased but not fundamentally different from current fusion research facilities.

Alongside this, the government is also proposing to clarify fusion’s status with regards to existing nuclear regulations and introduce new provisions necessary for the efficient, effective and proportionate regulation of fusion power plants and to work with regulators to consider whether and how enhanced engagement and new guidance for fusion developers could help support the safe and rapid deployment and commercialisation of fusion energy technology, among other proposals.

Any new regulatory provisions are to be assessed against three objectives, these being maintaining human and environmental protections in a way that is proportionate to the hazards and risks involved, ensuring transparency to enhance public assurance and making the UK the "best place in the world for commercialising fusion energy" through enabling regulation that offers certainty to fusion developers and investors.

Also launched today was the UK's fusion strategy, which outlines two overarching goals, these being for the UK to demonstrate the commercial viability of fusion by building a prototype fusion power plant in the UK that puts energy on the grid and for the UK to build a world-leading fusion industry which can export fusion technology around the world in subsequent decades.

Indeed, the government is currently aiming to demonstrate the commercial viability of fusion by building a prototype fusion power plant, STEP, by 2040. It announced an initial £200 million investment to support the first five-years of development in 2019.

The UK Fusion Strategy is to achieve the two aforementioned goals by working with the UK Atomic Energy Authority, the UK’s research organisation responsible for the development of fusion energy, to secure UK leadership across three ‘pillars’: international, scientific and commercial.

The technology forms part of the government’s long-term plans to harness new technologies to build what it described as a “strong, home-grown energy sector” that reduces reliance on fossil fuels and exposure to volatile global gas prices.

This need for domestic energy production to reduce exposure to global gas prices was also stressed last month by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), although it described the need for a "home-grown renewable energy sector".

This followed energy secretary Kwasi Kwarteng meeting with Ofgem and holding a series of individual meetings with senior executives from the energy industry to discuss the impact of the current high gas prices.

The government has been backing the development of fusion for some time, announcing over £900 million in early 2020 to ensure UK businesses were leading the way in what it said were high-potential technologies, including commercialising nuclear fusion technology.

"By putting in place the crucial foundations we’re setting out today, we will ensure the UK is uniquely placed to capitalise on this innovative and revolutionary energy source in the years ahead – helping to tackle climate change and reduce our dependence on unreliable fossil fuels at the same time," science minister George Freeman said.

The government has also previously provided funding for the development of small modular reactors as well as for advanced modular reactors.

The consultation on its fusion energy regulation plans closes on 24 December 2021. It can be viewed here, and the UK fusion strategy viewed here.

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