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Dounreay in potential bid to host world's first nuclear fusion power station

By Jean Gunn

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Highland Council is set to consider a potential bid for Dounreay to host the world's first nuclear fusion power station later this month.

The local nuclear facility is one of two sites in Scotland said to be preparing applications to construct a multi-billion-pound prototype reactor offering a virtually limitless source of clean electricity by copying the processes that power the sun.

Dounreay was unable to make any statement about the proposals as the application is community led, being made by the Caithness and North Sutherland Regeneration Partnership (CNSRP).

A spokesperson from Highlands and Islands Enterprise explained: "The UK Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA) is holding an open competition for a community to host a prototype fusion power plant.

"The Caithness and North Sutherland Regeneration Partnership is exploring a potential Caithness application in response to the UKAEA call. The partnership will decide by the end of the month whether to go ahead with an application.

"Fusion technology would be one of the world’s cleanest and lowest carbon forms of energy. It seeks to replicate the energy production process of the sun by fusing hydrogen into helium, producing huge amounts of clean energy."

CNSRP is a partnership of the main public sector bodies and key private sector organisations established to combat job losses resulting from the decommissioning of Dounreay.

A report on the proposed application is set to be discussed by Highland councillors on March 25. The other Scottish location expressing interest in the project is Chapelcross in Dumfries and Galloway, also in the process of decommisioning.

The bids were made after the UK government invited local communities across the country at the beginning of December to put forward proposals to become the home of STEP – the Spherical Tokamak for Energy Production – the UK’s ambitious programme to design and build a prototype fusion plant.

Conceptual illustration of the STEP fusion power plant.
Conceptual illustration of the STEP fusion power plant.

A spokesperson from the UK Atomic Energy Authority said: "We can’t confirm any expressions of interest in hosting STEP at the moment, as the bidding process is open until the end of March. After that point, we’ll undertake an initial assessment and aim to publish details of nominated sites in the first half of May."

Full assessment of sites will be based on a set of social, commercial and technical criteria, taking around two years to complete. On conclusion of this assessment UKAEA will make a recommendation to the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy with the successful site announced around the end of 2022.

Communities submitting nominations will need to demonstrate that their local area has just the right mix of social, commercial and technical conditions to host the new plant – such as adequate land conditions, grid connection and water supply.

The successful site will be home to the construction of the plant, targeted for completion by 2040, and will become a global hub for fusion energy and associated industries. This could create thousands of local highly skilled jobs during the construction and operation of the plant, as well as for the local supply chain, while attracting a new science and technology hub for the UK.

The programme follows the Prime Minister’s 10-point plan for a green industrial revolution and the UK’s ambition to be the first country in the world to commercialise fusion energy technology with £222 million allocated to begin the STEP design work.

STEP will be delivered through the UK Atomic Energy Authority which carries out fusion energy research on behalf of the government.

In addition to its £222 million commitment to STEP, the government has also invested £184 million by 2025 in new fusion facilities, infrastructure and apprenticeships at the Culham Science Centre in Oxfordshire, providing further support to this important centre of fusion and innovation.

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