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Nuclear fusion plant would be 'a major investment in Caithness economy'


By Alan Hendry

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A conceptual illustration of the STEP fusion power plant. It would offer a virtually limitless source of clean electricity by copying the processes that power the sun.
A conceptual illustration of the STEP fusion power plant. It would offer a virtually limitless source of clean electricity by copying the processes that power the sun.

North business leader Trudy Morris has welcomed the possibility of Dounreay hosting the world's first nuclear fusion power station, saying it would represent "a major investment in the region's economy".

While acknowledging that the idea is at a very early stage, she said it would continue the area's tradition of nuclear research and put Caithness at the forefront of developing "one of the cleanest forms of energy".

Ms Morris, the chief executive of Caithness Chamber of Commerce, was speaking after it emerged that Dounreay is one of two sites in Scotland 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. It would be known as STEP, the Spherical Tokamak for Energy Production.

The application is being taken forward by Caithness and North Sutherland Regeneration Partnership and is set to be considered 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 decommissioning.

"If Caithness and North Sutherland Regeneration Partnership were to be successful in its bid for the region to host the prototype STEP reactor, this would undoubtedly be good news for the community and the local economy," Ms Morris said. "The north Highlands has a long history of supporting nuclear energy research and development, and to be at the forefront of developing one of the cleanest forms of energy would be a welcome continuation of that tradition.

"The significant operational life of STEP would result in the creation of high-quality jobs both directly and within the local supply chain. It would also likely provide apprenticeship opportunities and the ability to export this new technology worldwide.

"While it is too early to say exactly what the economic benefits might be, this would represent a major investment in the region's economy. It would also cement the reputation of the north Highlands as a region which is forward-thinking, committed to a clean energy future and welcoming of new development opportunities."

Davie Alexander, chairman of Thurso and Wick Trades Union Council, is convinced that Caithness has the expertise that would make it a suitable location for such a pioneering venture.

The trades union council has already written a letter giving its backing to the concept and it expects other community groups to do the same.

“We’ve been supportive of the nuclear industry for over 60 years and we’ve got a good pool of skills both in Dounreay and across the supply chain that can support projects like this," he said.

Mr Alexander acknowledged it was "a long shot" but added: "You don’t get anything if you don’t ask.

“I’d be very surprised if the community didn’t get behind this because it’s the type of thing that we are looking for."

He highlighted a poll on the John O'Groat Journal and Caithness Courier website which has shown support for the nuclear fusion plant running at more than 90 per cent.

“The trades council since its inception has always been supportive of nuclear and we’ve always been supportive of trying to bring investment into the community," Mr Alexander said. "I think it would be folly for us not to get behind something like this.

"We’ve lived with it [the nuclear industry] for a lot of years and the expertise and skills that we’ve got can be adapted.

“I think it’s a really good opportunity for us. Whether it will be successful, only time will tell.

“It’s going to take a lot of years to come to fruition but you’ve got to be in it at the start to try and get some traction on it. Certainly I would be very surprised if there was a negative slant on this from the community."

Mr Alexander added: "Chapelcross is obviously very interested in it as well. Those are the two areas within Scotland but there will be loads of interest across England and Wales.”

Dounreay is one of two sites in Scotland preparing a potential bid to host the world's first nuclear fusion power station. Picture: DSRL and NDA
Dounreay is one of two sites in Scotland preparing a potential bid to host the world's first nuclear fusion power station. Picture: DSRL and NDA

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

"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.

The bids were made after the UK government invited communities across the country at the beginning of December to put forward proposals to become the home of STEP, the UK programme to design and build a prototype fusion plant.

A spokesperson for the UKAEA 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 the authority will make a recommendation to the UK 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 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 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 UKAEA 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.


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