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World’s Largest Fusion Reactor at Risk Due to Brexit

Alternative Energy

The Joint European Torus (JET) is a vital segment of international research into nuclear fusion that hopes to, one day, fuel homes and cities with energy free of greenhouse gases and waste – however, Brexit has thrown the future of the project into doubt.

The 34-year-old JET, which sits in the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy, is an EU venture, with hundreds of scientists, engineers and technicians from across the EU visiting to conduct experiments annually. Moreover, many of parts used to assemble the project, the world’s biggest nuclear fusion reactor to date, have been sourced from the bloc’s member states.

In all, €283 million (US$300 million) in Commission funding, has underpinned the program from 2013 until 2018. Further funding for 2019-20 appeared certain until June 23, 2016 — events since, such as the UK’s stated decision to leave Euratom have raised further questions about its future viability.

Euratom is a 1957 European treaty created to promote research and cooperation on nuclear power, which oversees the non-proliferation of nuclear materials and inspections of UK nuclear material, such as the stockpile of waste at Sellafield in Cumbria. The treaty also coordinates European research into atomic power.

Talks to renew JET’s funding are now on hold, pending Brexit negotiations. Uncertainty could serve delay or even derail the program outright.

JET’s main focus presently is heating two hydrogen isotopes — heavy hydrogen (deuterium), which comes from water, and super-heavy hydrogen (tritium), from lithium — to temperatures hotter than the Sun’s center.

JET was the first fusion reactor in the world to achieve fusion this way in 1991, and scientists have worked to refine control of the reaction and design better materials for the reactor’s core ever since.

JET is also unique as the only reactor in the world that can currently handle the radioactive element tritium — China, Germany and others are also experimenting with fusion, but building a new reactor to test the mix of deuterium and tritium elsewhere would be costly and time-consuming.

The walls of the JET reactors match materials going into the much bigger €13 billion (US$14 billion) International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) under construction in Southern France, which awaits JET’s results. ITER is a venture between EU members, the US, China, Russia, Japan, South Korea and India, and the second largest international project on the planet, just behind the International Space Station.

ITER is expected to produce its first plasma — the super-heated exotic state of matter in which fusion occurs — in 2025, and then mix tritium and deuterium to generate energy in 2035. Once it begins experiments, JET will cease to be useful. Between the present day and then, it remains an important learning ground.

If JET ends after 2018 without another global strategy for fusion development, it will by definition damage ITER’s development. Many at the upper echelons of ITER are said to be concerned as a result.

© Photo: Pixabay

Moreover, JET is also a valuable training base for the fusion experts ITER will need — closure at the end of 2018 means a large amount of know-how and capability could be lost. If this causes ITER’s efforts to founder, fusion could well be off the agenda for decades to come, if not eternity — and in the process, an unlimited and predictable clean energy source, much safer than conventional nuclear power, could be lost.

Nuclear fusion officials are now focused on containing the fallout of the UK’s departure from Euratom by trying to raise awareness about the damage it could do to their program. While ministers have said the government will not compromise JET’s position, they have failed to address the uncertainty surrounding future funding.

A March report published by the union Prospect concluded scientists in the UK risked being relegated to peripheral players in some of the world’s most ambitious projects of the next decade and beyond due to Brexit. The JET project was listed as a key area of concern.

“Continued uncertainty for our science funding and collaboration is not neutral. It damages relationships day-by-day and brings a high emotional cost. The government must make tangible commitments to end uncertainty and set a positive path to future economic success,” said Prospect Deputy General Secretary Sue Ferns.

8 Comments on "World’s Largest Fusion Reactor at Risk Due to Brexit"

  1. rockman on Tue, 4th Apr 2017 9:32 am 

    They don’t offer what % of the cost the UK has been contributing. But given the number of participants (especially the many much wealthier ones) I doubt the UK was kicking in that much. So this story may just be hyping the non-event of the UK dropping out. Or there’s some stirrings going on about other countries using Brexit as an excuse for pulling out of this capex “black hole”.

  2. dave thompson on Tue, 4th Apr 2017 10:17 am 

    I still want to know, even if this fusion biz comes to fruition, what will the overall benefit be? Clean, safe, to cheap to meter?

  3. AFDF on Tue, 4th Apr 2017 10:18 am 

    my sympathy to well meaning and determined individuals who set out to break barriers and hoping to make humanity God. Because with unlimited energy or a big amount of energy, comes the ability to make magic and that’s God like quality. There would be peace, love, prosperity forever.

  4. Cloggie on Tue, 4th Apr 2017 10:20 am 

    Researchers shocked at UK’s plan to exit EU nuclear agency

    “It is simply bonkers to leave Euratom,” says Steven Cowley, a theoretical physicist at the University of Oxford who until last year was director of the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy, which hosts JET.

    James Howard Kunstler always predicts that Japan will be the first advanced nation to return to the Middle Ages. Perhaps he should reconsider.

  5. Cloggie on Tue, 4th Apr 2017 10:28 am 

    JET is still fusion record holder: in 1997, 16 megawatt was generated in 1 second.

    the Joint European Torus (JET) in Culham, the largest EU research project in the UK, gets €69 million per annum in EU funding. That is about €24 million more than the UK contributes to Europe’s nuclear fusion budget.

  6. rockman on Tue, 4th Apr 2017 10:41 am 

    Cloggie – “…JET in Culham, (UK)…gets €69 million per annum in EU funding. That is about €24 million more than the UK contributes to Europe’s nuclear fusion budget.” Mucho thanks for that info. In that case it sounds more like the UK would be forced out of JET as a punishment for Brexit then being a plus for the country.

    Details matter. Too bad they didn’t includes those in the story. LOL.

  7. Cloggie on Tue, 4th Apr 2017 11:55 am 

    Can’t imagine they will write off this investment. Probably a case of “soup eaten not as hot as it is being served”.

  8. Cloggie on Tue, 4th Apr 2017 3:44 pm

    Of all the British scientists and engineers who participate in international projects, 53% of them do so in European projects. #2 is the US with 30%.

    many other scientists are gloomy. “The next 5 to 10 years are all about damage limitation,” says Stephen Curry, a structural biologist at ICL. “It’s deeply depressing.”

    The tragedy of Britain is that it isn’t located 20 miles out of the coast of New England rather than that of France. As a bonus British and American bombers would not have been able to bomb Germany during WW2, what’s not to like.

    Perhaps Smit-Tak-Wijsmuller can tow Britain to a new location (we’ll take Doggersbank for extra offshore wind space, thank you very much)

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