Winning bid announced to host UK fusion plant

04 October 2022

The West Burton power plant site in Nottinghamshire, England, has been selected to host the UK's prototype fusion energy plant - the Spherical Tokamak for Energy Production (STEP). The demonstration plant is due to begin operating by 2040.

A cutaway of the planned STEP building (Image: UKAEA)

In December 2020, the UK government called on local communities across the country to put forward proposals to host the STEP plant. Communities had until the end of March 2021 to submit their nominations and were required to demonstrate that their local area had the right mix of social, commercial and technical conditions to host the new plant - such as adequate land conditions, grid connection and water supply. A total of 15 potential sites were subsequently long-listed.

The UK Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA) - which carries out fusion energy research on behalf of the government - announced in October 2021 that, following an initial phase of assessment, five bids to host STEP had been shortlisted. These were: Ardeer in North Ayrshire; Goole in East Riding of Yorkshire; Moorside in Cumbria; Ratcliffe-on-Soar in Nottinghamshire; and the so-called 'Severn Edge' bid from South Gloucestershire and Gloucestershire. However, in January this year, the UKAEA announced that it would cease assessment of the Ratcliffe-on-Soar site and restart assessment of the West Burton site, named as a reserve site when the shortlist was announced in Autumn 2021.

The West Burton site currently houses two power plants: West Burton A is a coal-fired power plant, which was commissioned in 1966 and West Burton B is a combined cycle gas turbine power plant, commissioned in 2013. West Burton A is owned and operated by EDF Energy, while West Burton B is owned and operated by EIG.

"The choice of West Burton, the site of coal and gas power generation for decades, is seen as an iconic symbol of the pathway from fossil fuels to fusion power and a compelling catalyst for economic growth and social mobility," the Midlands Engine partnership and Energy Research Accelerator said in a joint statement. "The West Burton site benefits from connections to nearby manufacturing and construction firms, as well as the world-renowned research capabilities of regional universities, supported by the Energy Research Accelerator."

"The government-backed STEP programme will create thousands of highly skilled jobs during construction and operations, as well as attracting other high tech industries to the region, and furthering the development of science and technology capabilities nationally," the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy said. "The ambitious programme will also commit immediately to the development of apprenticeship schemes in the region, building on the success of the UKAEA's Oxfordshire Advanced Skills centre in Culham. Conversations with local providers and employers have already begun, with schemes to start as soon as possible."

The aim for the first phase of work on STEP is to produce a 'concept design' by 2024. The UK government is providing GBP220 million (USD227 million) of funding for this part. The next phase of work will include detailed engineering design, while all relevant permissions and consents to build the prototype are sought. The final phase is construction, with operations targeted to begin around 2040. The aim is to have a fully evolved design and approval to build by 2032, enabling construction to begin.

The technical objectives of STEP are: to deliver predictable net electricity greater than 100 MW; to innovate to exploit fusion energy beyond electricity production; to ensure tritium self-sufficiency; to qualify materials and components under appropriate fusion conditions; and to develop a viable path to affordable lifecycle costs.

"This is a huge moment for fusion energy in the UK. The STEP project will bring real benefits, including good jobs, opportunities for local companies and an ambition to drive skills and investment in the community," said Nuclear Industry Association Chief Executive Tom Greatrex.

"As we look to moving away from fossil fuels towards net-zero, it is important that we find new ways of meeting our growing energy demands. Fusion offers the opportunity to produce virtually limitless energy that will power low-carbon economies across the world. The UK can play a central role in making that a reality."

Researched and written by World Nuclear News