It's more than 20 years since Steps topped the charts. It could be less than that for STEP's first fusion energy

Anyone fancy a spherical tokamak in their backyard?

Fancy a fusion power plant in your back yard? The UK Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA) is looking for comments from five locations shortlisted as potential hosts for its Spherical Tokamak for Energy Production (STEP) programme.

The five sites were whittled down from an initial 15 and community forums between 26 January and 10 February will be in: Ardeer, North Ayrshire; Moorside, Cumbria; Goole, East Yorkshire; West Burton, Nottinghamshire; and Severn Edge, Gloucestershire.

The announcement follows the 100,000th pulse of the Joint European Torus (JET) fusion energy experiment and is a pointer to the next, er, STEP in taking fusion power from the experimental stage and into commercial usage.

Even then, there remains years of work ahead. A final decision on the STEP site will be made by the Secretary of State at the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy at the end of 2022. The first phase of the programme will be to produce a concept design by 2024, a UK prototype fusion energy plant in 2040 "and a path to commercial viability of fusion from there," a spokesperson told The Register.

The STEP prototype will be a compact spherical tokamak (a "tighter magnetic field than the conventional JET ITER-style tokamak," explained the UKAEA) and use a deuterium-tritium fuel mix, like JET and ITER (International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor). It will also have many of the features of a fully operational power station, including the necessary infrastructure, and showcase how a fusion power station will be operated and maintained.

While it will be connected to the UK's National Grid and producing net energy, "it is not expected to be a commercially operating plant at this stage," according to the project's web page.

The Register spoke to Richard Dinan, CEO of Pulsar Fusion, who told us "2040 sounds about right" once one considers the infrastructure and sign-offs needed to build a power station.

"That's what's taking the time," he said, "it's not the fusion."

Dinan's company is currently working towards propulsion from fusion (thus not needing the gubbins required for electricity generation) and he told us that the team was aiming for First Plasma in its propulsion tests at the end of 2023.

As for STEP, the UKAEA will be making recommendations based on the developability of the site, its potential for socio-economic benefits and, perhaps most importantly a supportive community. ITER is expected to finally reach the First Plasma stage in the second half of 2027, but the hope is that STEP will point the way to an energy plant with both a reduced physical footprint and lower costs.

The dream remains a limitless supply of clean energy, and should STEP get close to the 2040 goal, there is a good chance that fusion might become a viable part in the UK's strategy to hit "net zero" by 2050. ®

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