UK fusion scientists secure new funding despite Brexit

29 March 2019

The UK and the European Commission signed a contract extension today for the world’s largest fusion research facility, Joint European Torus (JET). The extension secures at least EUR100 million (USD112 million) in additional inward investment from the EU over the next two years and "brings reassurance" for the more than 500 staff at the site in Culham, near Oxford, the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS) said.

An internal view of JET (Image: EUROfusion)

JET is operated by the UK Atomic Energy Authority at Culham Science Centre, near Oxford. Scientists from 28 European countries use it to conduct research into the potential for carbon-free fusion energy in the future, through work coordinated by the EUROfusion consortium which manages and funds European fusion research activities on behalf of Euratom.

The future of the facility has been under discussion since 2017, as its work is covered by the Euratom Treaty, which the UK Government intends to leave as part of the process of leaving the EU. The new contract guarantees JET’s operations until the end of 2020 "regardless of the EU Exit situation", BEIS said, referring to the UK’s planned withdrawal from the EU, known as Brexit and, consequently, the Euratom Treaty.

Science Minister Chris Skidmore said: "Having made my first speech at Culham, I know how hardworking and dedicated UK Atomic Energy Authority staff are, which is why I’m pleased to announce today’s agreement, which is great news for the future of scientific research in Oxfordshire, the UK and Europe. Extending this contract means cutting-edge and world-leading fusion research can continue in this country, which I know will be a welcome reassurance to the hundreds of workers at Culham."
He added: "Science has no borders and as we leave the EU, this kind of international collaboration remains at the heart of our modern Industrial Strategy to maintain the UK’s position as a world leader in research and innovation."

JET will now be able to conduct a series of fusion tests planned for 2020 that will serve as a 'dress rehearsal' for the new international experimental fusion reactor, Iter, being built in southern France, BEIS said.

In addition, the contract "leaves open the option" of a further extension to JET’s operations until 2024, which would enable it to support Iter in the run-up to its launch in 2025.

Ian Chapman, CEO of the UK Atomic Energy Authority, said: "The extension to the contract is excellent news for both EU and UK science. JET has been a shining example of scientific co-operation between EU members, and this news means that these mutually beneficial collaborations will continue, allowing us to do essential experiments on the path to delivering fusion power."

Tony Donné, programme manager of EUROfusion, added: "A heavy weight has been lifted off our shoulders. This is extraordinarily good news for EUROfusion and the European fusion community as a whole. We can now continue to work on the realisation of fusion energy together with the indispensable experience of our British partner."

The Iter fusion reactor, currently under construction in France, will be JET's successor on the route to developing commercial fusion power. Iter is scheduled to produce its first plasma in 2025 and start deuterium-tritium operations in 2035. Like JET, Iter will not demonstrate the use of nuclear fusion to produce electricity. That will be the objective of Iter's successor, the Demonstration Fusion Power Reactor, or DEMO, which will aim to demonstrate the continuous output of energy, supplying electricity to the grid. According to EUROfusion, DEMO is expected to follow Iter by 2050.

Researched and written by World Nuclear News