UK signs major nuclear fusion deal with US

The two countries will co-operate on research and facilities in the pursuit of 'grid-ready' electricity

The Lawrence Livermore Laboratory in California is one site where the UK-US nuclear fusion partnership will operate. Getty Images
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The UK and the US have entered into a major partnership on nuclear fusion, announced in Washington by Andrew Bowie, Britain’s Minister for Nuclear and Networks.

The deal, agreed between Mr Bowie and US Deputy Secretary of Energy Secretary David Turk, will see the two countries pool their resources with the aim of having a fusion reactor “grid-ready by 2040”.

Mr Bowie said: “International collaboration is key for advancing fusion and achieving our ambition of getting a commercial fusion reactor grid-ready by 2040.

“The UK and the US are world-leaders in this technology, and pooling our resources will unlock new private sector investment.

“This bold new partnership will help turn our fusion ambitions into reality.”

Fusion involves mixing two forms of hydrogen and heating them to extreme temperatures, causing them to combine or fuse together, releasing huge amounts of energy in the process. The process aims to replicate how atoms fuse together to power the sun.

That energy can then be harnessed to generate electricity to be fed into a grid system. The fusion process itself would have no carbon emissions and could potentially generate a near-unlimited supply of clean electricity in the long-term.

The theory was behind the technology that built the hydrogen bomb 70 years ago. But putting it into practice to generate safe, clean electricity is somewhat more difficult.

The temperatures needed for the reaction to start are so hot that no material can withstand them. Devices called tokamaks use powerful magnets to control the reactions and harness the energy from them.

Splitting with Europe

The partnership deal with the US, which will see scientists share access to facilities and collaborate on research and development, comes at an opportune time for the British fusion industry.

The UK left the European ITER fusion project, which housed the world's largest tokamak, as a result of Brexit.

Unfortunately, many of the British scientists working at ITER opted for French citizenship in order to keep their jobs.

Then at the end of last year, the Jet fusion experiment at Culham in Oxfordshire closed.

But the new transatlantic partnership will be the UK’s first formal international fusion collaboration since the launch of the £650 million Fusion Futures Programme, which seeks to put Britain at the forefront of fusion research.

“The United States and the United Kingdom have long partnered on some of the world’s most ambitious scientific endeavours,” Mr Turk said.

The first formal meetings of the partnership will take place next year, led jointly by the UK's Department for Energy Security and Net Zero and the US Department of Energy.

Updated: November 09, 2023, 9:47 AM