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Energy: Nuclear Fusion

Volume 707: debated on Monday 26 January 2009


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they will support further investment in the development of nuclear fusion.

My Lords, the UK invests in nuclear fusion research through the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, the EPSRC. Almost all UK fusion research takes place at the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority at Culham, which will receive grant support from the EPSRC of £106 million over the four years culminating in 2009-10. The UK also participates in the EURATOM European fusion programme and the ITER project—the international thermonuclear energy reactor project—through its contribution to the EU budget.

My Lords, that is a helpful reply as far as it goes. Will the Minister guarantee that there will be sufficient financial support after 2010 to ensure continuity of the Joint European Torus project at Culham until such time as the larger, commercial-scale facility in the south of France, which is being developed by a global consortium, comes on stream?

My Lords, we can guarantee that continuing collaboration. ITER is a globally publicly funded scientific collaboration on nuclear fusion. It involves the EU, China, India, Japan, Russia, Korea and the United States and is being constructed at Cadarache in the south of France, to which the noble Viscount referred. The ITER agreement was signed by the seven parties in November 2006. We strongly support ITER as the next step towards practical fusion power. It could lead to the demonstration of full-scale power generation in a prototype power plant in 30 to 35 years. This is a long-term project, which has the potential for a long-term secure source of energy. The funding will be through the EURATOM agreement and it will continue.

My Lords, although that is a welcome assurance from the Minister, does he recognise that the Joint European Torus at Culham, to which he referred, is the biggest tokamak in the world and that there is huge expertise from British scientists and engineers? Will he give an assurance that the ITER project, to which he also referred, is taking full advantage of this pool of British expertise and knowledge, notwithstanding that the project is situated at Cadarache in France?

My Lords, I can confirm that we undertake the vast majority of fusion research in the UK and maintain the Joint European Torus as a fusion facility for European scientists. I agree with the noble Lord about the importance of the contribution that we make to this project.

My Lords, do the Government agree that real progress has been made at Culham in solving some of the scientific problems and that there are good prospects that in due course there will also be a practicable solution to the engineering and materials problems? As fusion in the medium term is possibly the best hope for the world’s serious energy problems, and as greater investment could speed up the project, can the Government give it a higher priority than seems to be indicated by the Minister’s answer?

My Lords, I must confess that I am not an expert in nuclear physics, as has probably been obvious from my replies, but we have a long-term commitment to the ITER project. It could lead to a demonstration of full-scale power generation in a prototype power plant in 30 to 35 years. It certainly requires an act of faith but the leading physicists in this area believe that it is possible and capable and we are fully committed to this international project. We should not underestimate the significance of a project that combines the EU, China, India, Japan, Russia, Korea and the United States. I cannot confirm whether we will give any more to it but I am happy to write to the noble Lord on the matter.

My Lords, can the Minister reassure the House that he realises the priority that is given to this project internationally? Last year I was a member of a committee put together by the US National Academy of Engineering and charged with looking at the grand challenges for engineering in the coming century. We identified 50 initially but boiled them down to 14. The projects related to energy, infrastructure and even medicine. Fusion survived through to the final 14 and engineers give the project an extremely high priority internationally. We have a very strong position, which I hope the Minister will sustain.

My Lords, according to the information with which I am supplied, we are fully committed to this project. I agree with the noble Lord about its significance and the importance of a long-term commitment.

My Lords, given that my noble friend has pointed out that the chance of nuclear fusion promoting valuable power to our energy needs is some 30 to 35 years off, can he reassure the House that there will be continued investment in the improvement of nuclear fission technology as well? This is a serious issue at present.

My Lords, my noble friend is right. We believe in a balanced and integrated approach to energy and not in putting all our eggs into one basket. The Government have demonstrated their commitment to all forms of renewable energy, including nuclear.

My Lords, is the Minister aware of the interesting developments in the United States with laser fusion technology? Will the Government examine that? As it will be, apparently, 35 years before we get fusion power, has the Minister noticed the report in today’s paper that it will provide each gigawatt of electricity much cheaper than that produced by wind power?

My Lords, these statistics are always complicated. It would be best if we wrote to the noble Lord on laser energy.