You can say what you like about Amazon head honcho Jeff Bezos but he does have a reputation for delivering. Perhaps not literally – he has people to do that for him – but from building the world’s most ubiquitous online shopping business to pitching billions into battling climate change and launching himself into space, he does seem to get things done.
So there’s reason to feel optimistic about last week’s announcement that he would be backing efforts to build a large scale demonstration version of the much-vaunted fusion reactor in Oxford. In fact, it was a good week for fusion-watchers all round as the government’s STEP (Spherical Tokamak for Energy Production) programme, run by the UK Atomic Energy Authority also announced its short list of potential sites that could play host to its own fusion energy plant by 2040. And unlike Bezos’ version – this one will, hopefully, generate electricity which can be put into the grid.
Until now – and perhaps still – fusion technology has seemed too good to be true. Unlike traditional nuclear fission technology (which splits the atom) fusion creates huge amounts of energy by fusing two light nuclei together to form one heavier atom. It’s the same process that powers the sun, emits no greenhouse gases, creates comparatively short-lived levels of radioactive waste and it’s generally thought to be pretty safe. The fuel (tritium and deuterium) that it consumes each day is measured in just hundreds of grammes – and derived from hydrogen, which is theoretically pretty plentiful.
So far, so good – and we should have a working model in less than 20 years’ time. But here’s the rub; critics will tell you this magical sounding answer to all our energy needs will always be 20 years away. There’s a host of massive technical challenges we need to overcome – not least working out how to safely create and contain heat levels that stretch to millions of degrees centigrade. But, again, there are reasons to be optimistic with a plant in France already well progressed, despite the challenges created by 18 months of a global pandemic.
That these two newest projects are based in the UK is a source of great pride. The UK was once seen as a world leader in the development of ‘traditional’ nuclear power technology and although our fleet of nuclear power stations is now reaching the end of its life, the spirit of innovation in the field remains alive and well. Check out this Camargue podcast on the development of Small Modular Reactors in the UK, for an excellent example.
In short, we can’t afford not to push on with exploring the holy grail of fusion and proper progress is now being made. The prospects of cheap, low carbon and virtually limitless power may seem like a chance in a million but you’ll never win the lottery if you don’t buy a ticket and between Bezos and STEP it feels like our numbers may at last come up.
Toby Barker is a director at Camargue