B.C.-based company to build nuclear fusion test plant in England

Monte Stewart
July 7, 2021

A Vancouver-area company plans to start building a nuclear-fusion test plant in England next year as part of a collaboration agreement with the U.K. government.

The deal moves Burnaby-based General Fusion closer to commercialization of its magnetized target fusion (MTF) technology. The proposed test plant would mark a major milestone for the 19-year-old company that has been developing MTF technology for more than a decade.

The test plant will not produce nuclear energy. However, the facility could lead to future nuclear-power production via an alternative to the conventional fission method prevalent today.

The company estimates the test plant’s cost at US$400-million (C$493.55-million.) It will be built on the U.K. Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA) campus in Culham, a nuclear-fusion hub near Oxford. Operations are slated to begin in 2025.

General Fusion and the UKAEA plan to collaborate on fusion technologies intended to generate electricity for homes, businesses and industries in the future. The collaboration agreement, announced in mid-June, comes as support for nuclear fusion from governments starts to ramp up.

The test plant will be built at 75 per cent of the scale of a typical nuclear-power plant. If all goes to plan, a commercial nuclear-fusion facility will then be built on a different site, which would be one of the first in the world.

General Fusion's president and CEO Chris Mowry was not available for comment at the time of publication on Wednesday. In a statement sent to Research Money, the company said they have raised C$300 million to develop its MTF technology and build the plant, and that they are in the process of closing their current round of financing.

"This decision also marks a historic milestone by becoming the first, of perhaps several, public-private partnerships created exclusively to support power plant-relevant demonstrations of fusion energy," Mowry wrote in a blog post on the company's website.

The company's Canadian backers include Alberta oil sands major Cenovus Energy, the Business Development Bank of Canada, Sustainable Development Technology Canada and Vancouver-based energy and tech investment firms Chrysalix Venture Capital and Pender Ventures.

International backers include U.S. entrepreneur Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon; Malaysian sovereign-wealth fund Khazanah Nasional; and Dutch energy-systems investment company Set Ventures.

If demonstrations succeed, nuclear fusion could become a major power source

Nuclear fusion is a futuristic process that merges two hydrogen isotopes extracted from water through a method that produces temperatures in excess of 100 degrees Celsius.

According to the World Nuclear Association, fusion occurs naturally in the sun and stars as hydrogen atoms fuse together and matter is converted into energy. But, on earth, technology is required to generate the same gravitational forces and high temperatures needed to bring hydrogen atoms together and generate power.

One kilogram of fusion fuel can power 10,000 homes for one year and replace 55,000 barrels of oil, 6 million kilograms of natural gas or 10 million kilograms of coal, according to General Fusion.

If commercial plants come on line by 2030 as expected, Mowry has predicted that investment in the sector could grow to US$1 trillion by the same year.

U.S., U.K and European governments ramp up spending on fusion

The Canadian company is among other private nuclear-energy developers entering the race to commercialize nuclear fusion after public entities struggled to do so for decades. The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), now under construction in southern France, is a frontrunner in the nuclear-fusion development race.

But ITER, which is backed by 35 countries including the U.S., members of the European Union and China, is behind schedule on its timeline to begin testing by 2025 due to pandemic-related delays.

General Fusion's collaboration with the U.K. government follows a U.S. National Academies of Science call in April to accelerate plans for a pilot fusion plant that would begin producing electricity by 2035 and a November 2020 offer from the British government to provide C$21 billion (US$17 billion) for green-industry development, including nuclear power.

U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson wants a British version of France’s ITER plant to begin operations by 2040.

European financial support for nuclear fusion has also started to ramp up. On July 6, the European Commission adopted the Euratom Research and Training (ERAT) program for 2021-22, which will provide C$417 million (€300 million) in funding to several nuclear-related initiatives, including the development of fusion energy.


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