Engineers Defend Nuclear Fusion Spend Ben Sampson July 24, 2015

Lords committee tells nuclear fusion scientists predicting commercial viability of fusion of being in ‘cloud cuckoo land’

Scientists and engineers from the nuclear fusion research community have rallied against an attack from a member of the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee that accused them of being in “cloud cuckoo land”.

Speaking at a meeting at the House of Lords earlier this week, Lord Peston slammed Professor Steven Cowley, head of the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy, for asserting that fusion research would produce “a commercially sustainable outcome” within the next 40 to 80 years.

He said: “You’re talking about cloud cuckoo land. I’m talking to all of you. What you’ve done is invent a marvellous system, where all the scientists in this area waste an enormous amount of public money worldwide, on a self-sustaining system with no likely outcome worth anything.”

“It’s not even obvious that fission plants are commercially viable. You are talking about things that are not even a million miles close to being built. “

The Lords Science and Technology Committee has been tasked with investigating the value of public funding for nuclear fusion research, pegged at £174.7 million this year. The UK is also contributing to the development and construction of the next generation of fusion tokomak, Iter, in the south of France. Iter is budgeted to cost a total of at least £13 billion and is planned to be completed by 2021.

Cowley, who is also the chief executive of the UK Atomic Energy Authority and a Professor of Physics at Imperial College London, admitted that if a more sustainable source of electricity were invented by 2040, research for nuclear fusion energy would be redundant.

He said: “If we were not making progress, we should not invest in fusion. At the moment we have transitional decarbonising technologies – nuclear fission and carbon capture and storage. By the end of the century we will need technologies to replace them.”

Nuclear fusion research represents 14% of the Research Council’s total spend on energy related research. Dr Sharon Ellis, deputy director of Research Councils UK, which is responsible for investing public money in research to advance knowledge and generate new ideas, said: “Without particular evidence, there is no reason to stop funding fusion research. As it stands, we are getting advances in material and robotics and backwards investment. The balance sheet is positive.”

Dr David Kingham, chief executive of Tokomak Energy, which is developing smaller, 100MW modular tokomaks that use high-temperature superconducting magnets, said: “Tokomaks are the way forward but there needs to be more diversity in the approach. The European roadmap is too linear – innovation doesn’t work like that. There is a risk that slow progress at Iter will delay progress as a whole.”