Question for Short Debate
If we achieve nuclear fusion, it will be the best solution to the problem of the world's future energy supply. It would provide a safe form of energy that is environmentally friendly, does not use up limited resources and should be economically competitive. I believe that most scientists would agree with that. However, it is a solution that always seems to be at least 35 years away. Will we ever get there? Is it worth the large investment in capital and science that it requires? There are sceptics who say that it is not. That is why I raise the Question. I want to find out the Government's assessment of the prospects and priorities. In particular, I want to know the view of the Science Minister. I am delighted that he will answer this short debate; a lot of us have very high hopes of him.
I am not an expert and the science involved is way beyond me but, after a recent visit to Culham and after a recent meeting in the Commons attended by a very high-powered group from Culham, which I am ashamed to say was attended by only three Peers and two MPs, I shall draw the picture as I see it. This shows how interested Parliament is in the big scientific issues of our time.
To achieve the conditions of fusion, two isotopes of hydrogen, deuterium and tritium must be heated to a temperature of over 100 million degrees centigrade, 10 times hotter than the centre of the sun, at which temperature they become an ionised gas called a plasma. In a structural device or machine called a tokamak which contains a vacuum chamber, the plasma is held away from the walls of the chamber by magnetic fields. The plasma must be kept away from the walls to protect them from damage and prevent pollution of the plasma. Magnetic confinement seems to be one of the most effective ways of doing so.
At these very high temperatures, the two particles of deuterium and tritium are forced together long enough to bring them into collision, when their nuclei fuse to form helium, and an energetic particle is ejected, a neutron, which is captured in a so-called breeding blanket that surrounds the plasma. This neutron heats the blanket, which in turn provides the heat that generates steam for turbines.
Deuterium is abundant and found in sea water. Tritium is not, and apart from what is required for the start-up, the fusion process requires that tritium is made on site. This occurs because the breeding blanket contains lithium and the reaction between the neutron and the lithium creates tritium.
There are several tokamaks in different parts of the world, but the largest is in Culham, the site of JET, the Joint European Torus. The tokamak has a toroidal shape, hence the title of the machine. One of the many impressive things about JET is that it is a splendid example of effective international co-operation, not only within the European Union, but with China, the United States, Russia, Japan, South Korea and now India; in fact, representatives of more than half the peoples of the world.
China, whose technology in this field is apparently well advanced, is particularly interested and committed, and recently sent a very high-powered delegation to Culham. Their reaction was very positive. As an aside, I might mention that the Chinese seem to think long term in a way that the West often does not. For example, about half the world’s R&D in agricultural biotechnology is now done in China because of the importance that the Chinese attach to it, but that is by the way. The fact that fusion may still be at least three decades away does not put them off at all.
Impressive progress to obtain power from nuclear fusion has undoubtedly been made in recent years. Temperatures of over 100 million degrees centigrade have been attained. In 1991, JET achieved controlled deuterium-tritium fusion reactions for the first time on Earth. In 1997, JET produced fusion power in the megawatt range for some seconds, with a maximum of 16 megawatts.
Constriction has now started on ITER in the south of France; ITER, as I am sure all Members of the Committee will know, is Latin for “a journey”. It will be a much bigger tokamak, twice the size of JET, and is the most ambitious scientific project in the world. It is expected to produce power in the hundreds of megawatts, and emit 10 times more energy than it puts in. However, it will still be an experimental facility. It should provide data which is needed to decide the size of an economic commercial reactor and, in particular, a pilot reactor to be built called DEMO.
I understand that work at Culham is vital to prepare for the work to be done at ITER and, indeed, DEMO. It is not only what we can learn from JET but also from another, smaller, tokomak built at Culham: the Mega Amp Spherical Tokomak, or MAST. This is a more compact device of a different spherical shape, which needs a smaller magnetic field to hold the plasma and keep it stable. I gather that MAST has been in operation since 2000 and a lot has been learnt from it about how plasmas behave.
If that brief, rather inadequate, description of the scene is roughly correct, it suggests that very good progress has been and is being made and that, given the huge prize to be won if we produce commercial fusion power, the world fusion programme needs every bit of support that we and the rest of the world can muster. But what are the obstacles?
It seems that we have achieved the conditions for fusion. But can materials handle the very high transient heat loads that are repetitively ejected on to material surfaces? I gather the main centre for materials testing is in Japan: the International Fusion Materials Irradiation Facility. What is our view of the prospects for developing the right materials? Should we not back the construction of a relatively small components test facility? I gather that an important contribution to this would be more investment to upgrade MAST and a similar spherical tokamak in the US. MAST would require additional capital of some £60 million. Is this being given consideration?
How do the Government view the likelihood that we can achieve continuous operation? How serious is the chance that we cannot? I understand that JET operates for 20 seconds at a time, for about 10 hours a day, about one day in four. ITER, I understand, will take the operating time to about one and a half hours, 10 times a day, while DEMO, it is hoped, will operate continuously.
Will ITER receive sufficient financial backing? Cost estimates have already increased sharply. In the past, enthusiasm for supporting fusion has risen when the price of oil has risen, and dropped when the price of oil has dropped. Can we and other nations provide guaranteed, steady support? Our own national budget for fusion is many times smaller than that of Germany, France or Italy. Should we not give it higher priority?
How can we avoid the usual national manoeuvring in an international body? It took years to choose a site for ITER. What prospects are there that we will not see unnecessary delays in ITER’s work? JET seems to be functioning very well.
The future of fusion is a huge question and we cannot hope to do more than just touch on it in a very brief debate, drawing attention to its importance and raising a few of the big issues involved. I doubt if many will take much notice of what we say. As I said at the beginning, interest in Parliament is not high. Maybe, however, we will encourage others to follow up our debate.
I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Taverne, on initiating this debate on fusion power. It is a matter of major strategic importance to the UK. I congratulate him on his excellent and complete speech. Much of what I say will parallel what he has said.
No matter how seriously or rapidly climate change impacts on our lives, it is certain that the supply of clean, economical energy ranks third only to the supply of sufficient clean water and food as a top priority for human progress, even for human survival. We have recklessly used our supplies of oil and natural gas at a rate that, if sustained, will mean that economical sources of these easy, but environmentally damaging, resources are used up well before the end of this century. Alternative energy sources including solar, wind, wave and tidal are being developed and may in the next two decades become economically viable, but they are all intermittent sources and will inevitably have to be backed up by continuous, supply-on-demand sources.
To date only two sources of continuous power have been demonstrated at practicably high power levels—that is, powers per facility approaching 1 gigawatt—and at costs similar to fossil fuels—that is, less than 10p per kilowatt hour in today's money—and which have long-term—hundreds of years—potential. They are nuclear fission and hydro power. Hydro power is, of course, only continuous provided that water supplies can be sustained and adequate geographical locations found.
So where do we turn to find the ideal continuous, sustainable, clean, safe and economical source of energy? Nuclear fission may well meet our needs throughout the century and perhaps for longer through the development of fast breeder reactors, but such reactors pose serious proliferation problems and difficulties will remain with radioactive waste disposal which must be dealt with. The only source we have with the potential to solve our problems cleanly and satisfactorily is fusion. Of course, there may be sources that we have yet to identify, although those will no doubt have their own problems—Rumsfeld's unknown unknowns, if you like. Leaving those aside, we are left with fusion.
That reasoning led the committee of the US National Academy of Engineering, of which I was a member last year and which was charged with coming up with the grand challenges for engineering in the coming century, to select fusion as one of only 14 challenges on the committee's final list. Those challenges covered the whole of engineering and included such divergent objectives as developing the means to understand the human brain and the supply of clean water. There was considerable debate about including fusion and scepticism about its practicality, as alluded to by the noble Lord, Lord Taverne, and I shall talk about that briefly in a minute. However, it was felt that fusion was the only known completely satisfactory solution to our energy needs and therefore must be included in the list.
In favour of fusion, as we have learnt, was the international buy-in to the ITER project with the commitment of major nations including the USA, the European Union, Japan, Russia, China, South Korea and India. While there are other attempts to produce fusion on a practicable scale using high power lasers, such as Europe's HiPER project, it is generally accepted that these are a generation, or 20 to 25 years, behind magnetic confinement, such as will be used in the ITER and is used in JET, the Joint European Torus, mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Taverne, which, of course, is a European-funded project, much to our benefit. I believe we receive more than £50 million a year to run JET. ITER will be the first fusion experiment to produce a long pulse of energy release on a significant scale. The aim is to produce 500 megawatts, which is 10 times the power input, for 400 seconds, or 300 megawatts for several hours.
I spent half an hour this morning on the phone with Sir Christopher Llewellyn Smith, who was until last September the director of UKAEA Culham Division, which is responsible for the UK's fusion programme and for the operation of JET, and with his successor Professor Steven Cowley, getting an update on the UK programmes and ITER. Sir Chris is now chairman of the ITER Council. What I learnt was encouraging but, as I am sure the Minister is aware and as the noble Lord, Lord Taverne, has told us, there will be funding difficulties with ITER, partly because of the expanded international nature of the programme. There were only three partners at the beginning when the original cost estimates were made, and there are now seven. There is also a lack of experience in pulling together such a vast international project on a greenfield site. But the new design for the reactor is much improved, and confidence is high that the aims of the project can be met.
As we have heard, fusion powers the sun through a process in which atomic nuclei are compressed together to form heavier nuclei, typically with the release of a highly energetic neutron. A small mass loss occurs, and this mass is transformed into energy. The process relies on the extreme temperatures and gravitational pressure encountered in the sun. We cannot replicate the high pressure here on earth, except in thermonuclear bombs and perhaps with lasers, because the earth is so much smaller. But we can produce fusion by producing higher temperatures than are encountered on the sun in a magnetically confined plasma. This is how fusion is produced in the JET at Culham, of which the noble Lord, Lord Taverne, has given an excellent description.
There is no point in trying to explain further the physics and engineering of a tokamak here. Suffice it to say that the fuel, which comprises isotopes of hydrogen called deuterium and tritium, can be produced from lithium, which is in vast supply in our oceans. A few tons of lithium would power a 1 gigawatt fusion power station for a year, and the oceans contain trillions of tons of lithium, so there is no fuel problem. Supplies would last for millions of years. From a safety point of view, there is no possibility of a runaway nuclear reaction, as it is difficult enough sustaining fusion in the first place. The problems of radioactive products are minute compared to today's fission reactors.
The practical difficulties arise because of the extreme measures that have to be used to produce very high temperatures and because of the difficulty in extracting the heat from the magnetically confined plasma. These are now engineering and materials problems, and the ITER and the associated materials research facility are designed to solve them. Most of the science has been done. Incidentally, much of the materials research, as we have heard, can also be pursued at Culham using its compact reactor.
Despite the fact that our expenditures on fusion are, as we have heard, small compared to those of our partners—especially Italy, France and Germany—we are in an extraordinarily strong position in fusion development, with UK scientists and engineers playing key roles in the world's leading fusion projects. The Government must not lose their nerve in their support for fusion and underinvest as we have done in so many promising new fields of technology when the running gets hot. Fusion has the potential to become a major source of UK industrial prosperity by the middle of this century.
Like the noble Lord, Lord Broers, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Taverne, on bringing this to our attention. He has admirably set out what the process consists of in comprehensive and understandable language; if I can understand it, it must be quite simple. The most important thing is that we move forward. Like the noble Lord, I have visited Culham and found it a fascinating experience from which I learnt a great deal.
It is a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Broers, the former head of the engineering department and a former vice-chancellor of the University of Cambridge. I declare my prejudice as a former Cambridge engineering undergraduate some 60 years ago. The noble Lord has defined exactly how this will become strictly an engineering problem.
Culham, about which we have heard a great deal, has proved that nuclear fusion is a known technology, and a virtually unlimited source of energy for power generation. Last week, in an Answer to an Oral Question, the noble Lord, Lord Young of Norwood Green, on behalf of the noble Lord, Lord Drayson, confirmed that funding would continue for the foreseeable future. The stated policy of the noble Lord, Lord Drayson, as skills Minister is that we should back research that has a future. Nuclear fusion clearly has a future, albeit on a long-term basis.
We heard from the noble Lord, Lord Taverne, and my noble friend Lord Broers about what is happening in Cadarache in the south of France. The globally funded consortium aims to produce fusion on a commercially viable basis. As many people have said, it is a long-term project covering 30 years. That has been a rolling 30-year period ever since I can remember, which is one of the problems, but progress could be accelerated if the global consortium recruited more engineers and physicists. That would require massive international funding but would be worth while.
The Chinese are not worried about the long-term nature of the project because in their terms 30 years is merely a twinkle in the eye, but it is a different story in Europe where, unfortunately, politicians tend to think in terms of electoral timeframes, which are rather short. How do we make a long-term project a viable proposition for the United Kingdom? As my noble friend Lord Broers rightly said, engineering will be especially crucial, given that temperatures in the combustion chambers are many times greater than that of the sun. This brings us back to materials science and materials engineering, which will ultimately be the key to the whole problem. That is where the blockage will occur. Are enough people coming into engineering—that certainly has not been the case in the past—to resolve this problem? Many young people have not necessarily considered engineering as a career as they decided that they could do better in the City. The decline of our manufacturing base has resulted in a shortage of engineers. That is a crucial problem. How can it be addressed? It is key to solving the problem.
Whatever happens, Culham must be kept in the loop. On many occasions we have developed inventions in this country but seen them exploited commercially by others. The jet engine and the television are good examples of that; there are plenty of others where Britain has invented something but because we have not stayed with it or had the necessary capital resources, it has gone elsewhere. That is why it is absolutely essential to keep Culham very much in the loop. There is a brilliant team there, as the noble Lord, Lord Taverne, and my noble friend Lord Broers pointed out. Culham’s involvement in the Cadarache development is vital. The two must work in close harmony; otherwise, the development will not happen, and some of us believe very strongly that it should happen. I hope that it will and I very much look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say.
I believe that it is open to me to say a few words in the gap and I warned the Minister that I intended to do so.
I had the privilege of taking the chair for the noble Lord, Lord Taverne—I congratulate him on his speech—at the annual lunch of the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee earlier this week, and I took the chair for the noble Lord, Lord Drayson, at his lecture to the Foundation for Science and Technology only last night. Those matters are very much related. I was pressed by the noble Lord, Lord Taverne, to be present. I had hoped to be in Spain today but I am afraid that I had to cancel the trip.
I have only two questions for the Minister. First, can he spell out the total expenditure by the UK Government on JET and ITER, and over what period is he able to be fairly definite about facts and figures? The noble Lord, Lord Young of Norwood Green, gave one or two figures on 26 January, but that only partly answers the question. Can the Minister fill us in? My second question stems from the noble Lord’s very interesting lecture last night in which he spoke about the need in the present circumstances for the Government to concentrate research spending priorities on those things on which we are particularly good. He asked questions; he did not state a policy. Those questions have huge implications, so I have a second question for him and then I must give way to the Front Benches. Does he regard the spending on fusion, particularly through our investment in JET and ITER, as areas in which the UK has a strong record and a strong competence which would qualify for the priorities that he might eventually bring forward?
I came unprepared for a contribution, but the debate has been so stimulating that I must make one. First, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Taverne, on his characteristically thorough examination of the topic before he chose to speak on it. His contribution was well put and in intelligible lay man’s language, and I shall try to emulate him.
Fusion is of course a glittering prize which we must, on the one hand, pursue but, on the other hand, not be hypnotised by. Too many magic solutions in the far distance are imported into present-day policy to the detriment of existing initiatives. I could give many examples, but I digress to point out that we are spending a lot of money on renewable sources. They are intermittent and unreliable sources, much above the average cost of electricity by traditional means. However, as they are so attractive and fashionable, we are failing to replace the 40-plus year-old generating plants which support our system. Due to timescale, the task of doing that has become almost impossible. It is therefore easy to be diverted and say, “That’s a magic solution. Let’s pursue it”, without recognising the timescale.
The timescale for real integration for fusion—
I will be quick. I thank the noble Lord. I will try to return to the main track. The timescale for fusion of any real contribution is probably 100 years. That may sound a long time, but prototypes take that amount of time to come to fruition. I would be an enthusiast for pursuing it, but not rosy-eyed about its early acceptance.
I want to thank my noble friend Lord Taverne for bringing the subject before us. I looked deeply into areas of Liberal Democrat policy on this and saw that they were not great. This is therefore a good issue on which the House of Lords can make progress. One thing is certain: apart from the current global economic problems, climate change remains the greatest challenge to the planet. Any technology that has the ability to produce large quantities of carbon-free energy cannot be ignored in policy decisions and in pushing it to the point of further evaluation.
There are various approaches to low-carbon forms of large-scale energy generation that have yet to be proven. Fusion is not the only one. There is deep geothermal, which many people feel could power the world if tapped in the right way; there is the difference between temperatures at the top and bottom of the ocean; there are a number of areas of biological power generation; and there are approaches that demand research for longer-term solutions. However, there is no doubt that fusion is an important approach. It is a big science area and has been seen by many—perhaps to its own detriment—as the silver bullet in terms of future energy generation.
One of the things that I feel very personally aware of is that science these days is regrettably so much out of fashion in many ways. I grew up in the 1950s and early 1960s being very excited about the nuclear industry and all the scientific discoveries that were taking place, together with the space race and all those areas. Unfortunately, we are far more sceptical about science now. We see it more as a threat rather than as an opportunity for moving civilisation forward. I very much regret that, and it is perhaps a shame that nuclear fusion can sometimes be seen in that context.
I am struck by the fact that the United Kingdom has a good track record in this area, with the ZETA project at Harwell in the 1950s and the JET project at Culham, which has been mentioned several times during this debate. I am also aware that in the UK and much of the rest of the world, R&D expenditure on these types of technology is very much related to oil price. It is clear that, particularly with the climate change agenda and the peak oil issues around fossil fuels, we must find some way of decoupling basic research on longer-term solutions for energy away from being driven completely by the oil price. That means bringing a greater emphasis on public-sector investment in some of these R&D areas than we have had previously, with the shift towards the private sector, not that that is in any way bad either.
The good points about fusion are that it is zero carbon; unlike renewable energy sources it creates base-load electricity; it has very few of the waste issues that nuclear fission has; and, as already has been described, there is no difficulty with raw materials, whereas uranium can be quite an issue. The main downside has to be uncertainty. We have research that has gone on for many decades that has not brought us to a point of commercial application. That is the big issue. There is also a branding problem, in that probably very few people outside this Room understand the fundamental differences between atomic power and nuclear fusion. Their names are similar, although they are almost opposites in terms of their technology. The fears of one can be reflected in the other, and education needs to take place on that.
As other noble Lords have stated, ITER is coming next as a European-led project with six other partners as part of the European Union’s seventh framework programme. I certainly feel that EURATOM as an organisation has rather gone into the background. It was one of the three important communities of Europe in the 1950s and 1960s. Some 60 per cent of EURATOM’s costs are already expended in the fusion area. Clearly, this is an area where EURATOM can start to move towards a much more positive future. I would have liked to have seen this as part of a longer-term European climate change package. I would like to understand Britain’s part in the core European role in ITER better. Do we have a major leading role in EURATOM and the European part of ITER? I would also like to know when the Government believe that, as part of that programme, we will get to a point where we understand whether this approach to a commercial application will work.
On these Benches we very much agree with research and development over the long term into technologies that will help us on energy security and climate change. Having said that, we need to make sure that it does not act as a substitute for expenditure on those technologies that we need to implement in order to achieve an 80 per cent carbon footprint reduction for the United Kingdom by 2050. Nuclear fusion will not be able to help us with that within that timescale.
I thank my noble friend Lord Taverne for initiating this debate. Along with other Liberal Democrats, I think that nuclear fusion is an important part of the long-term future in which we as a country should invest.
I, too, congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Taverne, on securing this timely debate. His explanation was very informative, and I have listened with great interest to Members of the Committee who have far greater expertise in this area than I do. It has been a most informative and enlightening debate. The world has changed rapidly around us, and our interdependence is more evident now than ever before. The economic crisis that is crippling economies around the globe has highlighted the huge impact of markets that are thousands of miles away. Thus, this is the case when we talk about energy, climate change, conservation and new technologies.
We all recognise that we have finite resources and that many of our power stations are coming to the end of their lives. The global response to alternative energy development has been slower than we would wish, and gaining commitment from emerging economies to tackle climate change remains a challenge. For us in developed economies, cutting carbon emissions, guaranteeing security of supply and providing energy to consumers at an affordable price must be at the forefront of political will.
We all understand the physics of nuclear fusion, but it remains very much at an experimental stage. In 2006, Malcolm Wicks, the then Minister of State for Energy, raised doubts at a Royal Academy of Engineering lecture that the first commercial fusion plant would even be ready by 2050, a point that was made by the noble Lord, Lord Flowers. Therefore, I ask the Minister whether he believes a statement made by the Government in their 2007 energy White Paper, which stated that,
“the technical feasibility of fusion power generation could be demonstrated within 25 years given adequate resources … with full-scale power generation within 30 years”.
Does the Minister believe that current resources are adequate? Is 2034 an achievable date? As the noble Lord, Lord Taverne, and my noble friend Lord Jenkin have asked, what is the current level of financial support? Given the economic difficulties facing the country, will the Minister assure us that funding will not be redirected, stopped and used for other priorities?
The 2007 energy White Paper also stated:
“International collaboration is the best way of addressing the complex science and technology questions and the scale of resources required in order to harness nuclear fusion”.
What discussions has the Minister had with the Foreign Office on the practicality of constructing a European electricity grid and examining the type of infrastructure required to support future fusion power plants?
Currently, the work carried out at Culham feeds into the international project in France, where the ITER has been under development since 2006. Were the construction of a commercial nuclear fusion power station to take place in France, how would it be resourced and managed, and who would have overall control of its activities? How would contributing countries be guaranteed energy security? Who would monitor the systems? When the Minster talks about “continuing collaboration”, does that mean guaranteed continued funding?
To ensure that we remain at the forefront of research and development, we have to ensure that we have the technical and scientific skills required. What are the Government doing to ensure that more young people are being encouraged to take up science in schools and universities? I know that the Minister is very keen on students taking up STEM subjects, so does he share the great disappointment felt by many universities at the lack of young people coming forward to take up degrees in STEM subjects? Does he appreciate that while we have declining numbers, science faculties will continue to close down?
In answer to a question from the Labour Benches in another place, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for DIUS said that those who want to work in so-called “green-collar” jobs would need to take up STEM-related subjects. In many instances, this will hold true, but in responding to the challenges facing students on the employment front, surely that was a lacklustre response to those who genuinely may wish to change career path. Does the Minster have a more positive approach to what students can do in responding to changing global needs? Will the Minister also explain how we will grow our numbers of STEM graduates when the Secretary of State has just issued a moratorium on additional places in our universities? Surely this is a retrograde action that will only fuel future difficulties in keeping Great Britain at the cutting edge of research and development?
Global energy demand is set to rise; figures from Imperial College London show that, without action, 2030 will see the world using 50 per cent more energy than it did in 2005. This shows, very simply, that there is an urgent need for both a demand-side reduction and a supply-side capacity increase. It is hard to see how that will be achieved without more support for energy research and development, noting that public funding for energy research has more than halved globally in real terms since 1980. Many areas of the energy sector are short of critical skills.
Fascinating and promising though it is, the success or failure of nuclear fusion will not be known for quite some time, and we need to ensure that we look at technologies that are available now. In the Energy Act, the Government created a framework for the introduction of a system of feed-in tariffs to support domestic and community microgeneration. This is at the cutting edge of practical, available, low-carbon energy generation, and it is something that we on these Benches have been advocating for some time. Can the Minister tell the Committee what progress has been made with getting this new, widespread system of feed-in tariffs up and running and available to consumers, within the framework enshrined in law last year?
I note that the Government were rather slow to appreciate the possibilities of microgeneration, having to be converted during the passage of the Energy Act. I fear that, without a real push on the underlying policy, the Government will fail to deliver. Before the Minister tells me that these technologies are already being used, I remind him that the scale and mix are far from adequate. Does the Minister also agree that creating an intelligent electricity grid to bring our current system out of the 1950s and 1960s is the way forward in terms of effectively managing input from certain intermittent renewable technologies and demand from consumer appliances, and so cutting overall energy usage by actively matching supply and demand?
On that note, what is the Government’s current timetable for installing smart meters? Does the Minister accept that these will allow consumers and energy companies to monitor usage far more effectively and will make billing much fairer at a time when many consumers fear the arrival of their gas and electricity bills and have a very poor view of the energy companies?
While I reiterate the ongoing enthusiasm from these Benches for the banding of the renewables obligation and the support it provides to emerging technologies, can the Minister tell the Committee why £50 million of the Marine Renewables Deployment Fund remains unspent? Is it because the Government have failed to put in place the infrastructure necessary to connect marine renewables to the National Grid on a wide scale?
Finally, why are the Government not doing more to support the development of carbon capture and storage technology? The one demonstration plant that was operating at Peterhead in Aberdeenshire has closed down, with BP citing a lack of government support. Carbon capture and storage is an emerging low-carbon technology, which could be commercially viable very soon. It is a technology that could dramatically cut our carbon emissions and in which Britain could lead the world. If the Minister wants to create new, highly skilled, green jobs, surely carbon capture and storage deserves more from the Government?
I appreciate that I have at times strayed from discussing nuclear fusion, but our energy challenges will not be solved by one technology alone. Because decisions were slow in coming in the past decade, we must urgently give consideration to our energy mix, not just for the second half of the 21st century, but for the lion’s share of the first half too. I am sure that we could debate the future of energy and all the themes that run with it—energy efficiency, energy security and fuel poverty—for many hours, but I would like the Minister to have plenty of time to respond to the many searching questions put by noble Lords today.
I am hugely grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Taverne, for sparking this debate and for the contributions from which I have had the pleasure of benefiting today. As the noble Baroness, Lady Verma, said, she ranged widely in energy policy. Some of her points that went beyond nuclear fusion were extremely important, and I will write to her giving full answers to the questions she raised.
The noble Lord, Lord Taverne, asked me to focus on prospects and priorities for nuclear fusion and I will attempt to give him and other noble Lords clear answers to those questions. He gave a truly excellent description of the state of the art in nuclear fusion. As he said, it is the energy-releasing process which powers our sun and the stars and, if we can harness it effectively, offers the potential to provide a virtually limitless supply of clean energy. The low-fuel consumption and abundant supplies of the basic raw materials mean that fusion, once working effectively, could be an energy source for many thousands of years. It therefore offers a solution to the problem of global energy demand, the present threat of climate change and the concern, common to many nations, about energy security.
I absolutely agree with the noble Lord, Lord Broers: it is worthy of consideration as a great challenge for engineering. I am pleased to say that the latest scientific advice I am given indicates a good prospect of success. Fusion is environmentally friendly and safe. The fuel consumption of a fusion power station would be extremely low. There is no possibility of runaway reactions or explosions. Moreover, there will be no long-lived radioactive material created by the fusion process. All the radioactive materials could be recycled, if so desired, within 100 years.
So fusion research aimed at developing a new, long-term secure source of energy which produces no greenhouse gas emissions like carbon-dioxide is, we believe, scientifically a realistic prospect. As a result, this and previous Governments have long supported fusion research in this country. The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council took over the responsibility for funding fusion research in the United Kingdom in 2003. The noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, asked me to be specific on costs. Our UK support for fusion research increased from approximately £19 million in 2003-04 to a projected total of £34 million in this financial year. Over the four-year period 2006-07 to 2009-10, the EPSRC’s support for fusion will be over £100 million. The JET operating costs are £60 million, of which the United Kingdom provides one-eighth, and the ITER EU/EURATOM budget over the next five years is €1.9 billion.
Discussions about the future levels of support between the EPSRC and the UK Atomic Energy Authority are due to take place next month. The EPSRC also supports fusion research within the wider academic research base, and support to universities now amounts to about £2 million per annum. University involvement in fusion research includes joint training in a wide range of disciplines at York, Imperial, Warwick and Oxford, among others. As the noble Viscount, Lord Montgomery of Alamein, and other noble Lords have highlighted, the vital importance of our ensuring that we have an adequate supply of engineers and scientists is critical to the realisation of the potential of such areas as nuclear fusion but also other technologies. It is pleasing to see that the recent initiatives taken by the Government to reverse the hitherto negative trends in the attractiveness of science and engineering to young people are starting to bear fruit, although we must not be complacent.
Let me focus on what we have achieved in the UK. This is an area where the UK has shown real leadership and where we have a clear strategic advantage in terms of what we have achieved to date, in particular at Joint European Torus—JET—in Culham, Oxfordshire. We can claim real strategic leadership in this area, and that is why it is important for us to maintain our investment in this area, given what we regard as reasonable scientific prospects of success. So far, JET has resulted in the release of significant amounts of fusion energy in a controlled manner, but only for very short periods of a second or less. It is the world’s largest fusion facility and holds the world record for the production of 16 megawatts of fusion power. That is something of which UK science can be justifiably proud.
JET came into operation in the 1980s, and it is still undertaking very important and useful scientific research. The UKAEA operates and maintains JET as a facility for European scientists. It is mainly funded from the EURATOM fusion research programme, which provides about 75 per cent of its operating costs. It also receives support from the European Commission for a programme of refurbishment. Despite the excellent success that has been achieved by JET, we now need to undertake fusion experiments on a larger scale. A fusion power station will have to contain a few thousand cubic metres of hot gas and operate around the clock. The next step is to construct an experimental fusion device on the scale of a power station, known as ITER, which is currently being constructed in the south of France.
The UK strongly supports ITER as the next step in the development of practical fusion power. It could lead to the demonstration of full-scale power generation in a prototype power plant. The noble Baroness asked me whether we still believe in the timescales that we gave in 1997. Yes, we do believe that it will be potentially possible for such a plant to generate power in approximately 30 to 35 years’ time.
The complex science and technology and the scale of resources present this international collaboration with significant challenges. It is pleasing how the international community has come together to do this, and we can be justly proud of the way in which UK leadership is continuing through the international collaboration and the funding that we are providing.
The costs of ITER construction were estimated in 2001 to be about €5 billion, but they have now risen substantially. The costs have risen for a variety of reasons, but mainly because of changes in the ITER design. It is clear that those increased costs will have to be met. The Commission has been asked to explore how best to contain cost increases, in co-operation with other ITER partners. Revised cost estimates are expected to be presented at the ITER Council in November this year. It is clear that, within the new framework programme due to start in 2014, extra funding will have to be found.
In addition to the construction of ITER, there will also be a need for a materials test facility, known as the International Fusion Materials Irradiation Facility. This in itself presents some difficult and important scientific challenges. The results of both ITER and IFMIF will be incorporated in the design of a prototype or demonstration power station, which would take approximately 10 years to build. So, in response to the question of the noble Lord, Lord Taverne, about a component test facility, we agree that there is a need for such a facility but do not agree that we need to decide that now. We must now focus on the construction of the ITER facility, and will have to draw our consideration to components testing in good time.
My key message on nuclear fusion to the Committee is that the scientific community on which we base our judgment, and which ultimately determines the balance of investment across our science portfolio, has judged that nuclear fusion has good chances of success notwithstanding the long timescale and huge investment that will be required to realise it. It is therefore important that the United Kingdom maintains its investment in this area and continues to provide the leadership that it has done. I am sure, as the noble Lord, Lord Broers, has asked, that the UK Government will not lose their nerve in this area. We believe in the potential of this science and hope that, in turn, its potential will be realised.
Committee adjourned at 4.01 pm.