The UK’s role in fusion energy development

What’s next for the UK energy sector? Last year, the government committed over 50 million to a fusion energy project. Is this the end for solar and wind-based energy, or part of a broader initiative designed to lower our carbon emissions?

In this article, we’ll trace the UK’s involvement in fusion energy, from past to present, and look ahead to see what the future holds.

1940-2021: The UK’s Involvement in Fusion Energy

1940s-1950s

The UK didn’t get fully involved in fusion energy until the 1940s and 1950s. Serious research began during this period at places like Aldermaston – as well as respected universities, such as Imperial College in London and at the Atomic Energy Energy Research Establishment at Harwell.

1960s

In 1965, a dedicated site was created by the UK Atomic Energy Research Establishment. The Culham laboratory, as it was called, soon developed a reputation for excellence in the field of fusion energy – devising a range of experiments to push boundaries within its own specialist field.

To expand their knowledge, scientists from Culham travelled to Moscow to learn about a device called the tokamak – which soon became the UK researchers’ model for future fusion energy power.

1970s-1990s

The 1973 oil crisis put pressure on governments worldwide to explore alternative options – one of which was fusion energy. Work began at Culham not long after on the development of JET – a tokamak-styled reactor regarded to be a game-changer by many. Fast forward to 1991 and JET made history by achieving controlled nuclear fusion.

1990s-Present

Culham continued to perfect its tokamak in the 90s, refining its design to become more spherical and compact. This also made the product more affordable. Never content to stand still, scientists continue to push the boundaries of this machine today.

Fusion energy versus wind and solar power

Is the UK prioritising fusion energy over wind and solar power? As touched upon in the timeline above, a new Mega Spherical Tokamak (MAST) was launched in 2020 and at an eye-watering cost of £55m that was bankrolled by the UK government.

Our government wouldn’t invest this much money if it wasn’t confident in MAST’s ability to deliver. MAST is regarded as a step toward achieving clean and sustainable energy – and moves the UK closer toward the creation of a planned and fully-functioning power plant by 2040.

Wind and solar: what’s on the cards?

So where does this leave alternative forms of energy, such as wind and solar? In 2018, investment in this sector sharply dropped – by an astounding 56% – due in part to a subsidy ban on wind farms and a reduction in support for solar power.

But Boris Johnson seems keen to reverse this failure, as suggested in his Build Back Greener campaign, which will aim to make the UK the leader in clear wind energy by dramatically reducing carbon emissions and investing in new infrastructure at a cost of £160m.

It would appear, therefore, that there is room for energy fusion, wind, and solar power to work cooperatively. That said, the UK government’s MAST project – and Boris Johnson’s Build Back Greener campaign – are still in the early stages. So we must watch carefully to see how these developments unfold.