Council bidding for world’s first nuclear fusion power plant
Alex Seabrook, local democracy reporter
Vale of Glamorgan council is bidding to turn the Aberthaw site, near Barry, into the world’s first nuclear fusion power plant.
Aberthaw is a former coal-fired power plant which was decommissioned in 2019, and was the last coal power plant in Wales.
Proponents of nuclear fusion say it’s a futuristic low-carbon technology. Energy is generated in the same way the sun produces heat and light: fusing hydrogen together to make helium.
In 2019, the UK government announced £220 million funding towards designing a concept of a fusion power station, and at the end of last year called for potential sites. Aberthaw is now one of them.
The Vale council is suggesting the former coal power plant as a site for the fusion power station, which could bring lots of high-paid and high-tech jobs to the region and potentially play a huge part in cutting emissions of carbon dioxide.
However, the plant wouldn’t open until 2040. Fusion technology is still in its early stages, and reactors require huge amounts of electricity to generate energy, because of the super high temperatures required. No reactor has so far produced more energy than it consumes.
During a recent cabinet meeting, Councillor Lis Burnett, deputy leader of the Vale council, said: “Last October, the secretary of state for business, energy and industrial strategy announced £220 million towards the conceptual design for a fusion power station.
“STEP stands for spherical tokamak energy production. I have no idea what that means.”
The government’s fusion scheme is called: ‘spherical tokamak for energy production’. A tokamak, shaped like a giant doughnut, is where atoms are fused together to produce heat. The heat is then absorbed by the walls of the tokamak, and turned into electricity.
‘Tokamak’ comes from a Russian acronym: ‘toroidal chamber with magnetic coils’. ‘Toroidal’ means doughnut-shaped; and huge magnets are needed to control the hot plasma inside to stop it touching the walls of the machine and keep it under high pressure.
A spherical tokamak is shaped more like an apple without its core than a doughnut, and is smaller and relatively cheaper to operate than larger, traditional doughnut-shaped tokamaks. The technology is still, however, far more expensive than wind or solar power.
Cllr Burnett added: “It’s an innovative plan for a commercially viable fusion power station offering the realistic prospect of constructing a power plant by 2040. In November last year, the UK government invited expressions of interest to identify sites in the UK.”
Fusion technology is the opposite of how nuclear power plants currently work, with ‘fission’, where atoms are broken apart. Fusion is considered safer and cleaner than fission.
The government is hoping its STEP prototype, which would see a concept design produced by 2024, could help roll out commercial fusion power plants across the world. Construction would then start as soon as 2032, and the power plant becoming operational in 2040.
Other sites put forward for a STEP prototype include Ratcliffe-on-Soar, a coal power station in Nottinghamshire; and Moorside nuclear power station near Sellafield in Cumbria. The government should decide which site to choose by the end of 2022.
Professor Ian Chapman, chief executive of the UK Atomic Energy Authority, said: “STEP is a novel, challenging and game-changing programme; aiming to realise the potential of fusion energy to provide almost limitless, clean, secure, sustainable low carbon energy in the second half of this century.
“We believe that the community which hosts this facility will place itself at the forefront of a global clean energy revolution — with all the benefits that entails.”