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'Reasons to remain optimistic' after Caithness misses out on trailblazing nuclear fusion plant

By Alan Hendry

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The UKAEA has decided not to shortlist the bid by Caithness and North Sutherland Regeneration Partnership for the STEP fusion power plant.
The UKAEA has decided not to shortlist the bid by Caithness and North Sutherland Regeneration Partnership for the STEP fusion power plant.

The regeneration body that promoted plans for Caithness to host the world's first nuclear fusion power station is refusing to be downbeat after it was confirmed that the far north has missed out on the pioneering project.

A bid to host the Spherical Tokamak for Energy Production (STEP) prototype power plant was submitted by Caithness and North Sutherland Regeneration Partnership (CNSRP) earlier this year. It felt that Caithness was ideally placed for the venture as it would tie in with the Dounreay decommissioning programme.

However, the CNSRP submission is not among the five shortlisted by the UK Atomic Energy Authority, which carries out fusion energy research on behalf of the UK government.

UKAEA has concluded that, while Dounreay is a good development opportunity, other locations appear more suitable. The five sites are Ardeer (North Ayrshire), Goole (East Riding of Yorkshire), Moorside (Cumbria), Ratcliffe-on-Soar (Nottinghamshire) and Severn Edge (Gloucestershire).

CNSRP chairman Ian Ross said: “Members of the partnership worked very hard to develop what we believe was a very strong bid for the prototype to be sited in Caithness. It’s unfortunate that there are other sites that the UKAEA felt better suited the needs of the project and chose not to shortlist our bid.

“Nevertheless, we have many reasons to remain optimistic, not least of which is the strength of the partnership itself – aptly demonstrated in its ability to work together to prepare such a bid in a short timescale.

“Also, this is only one of several exciting projects currently being taken forward by CNSRP. The recently published space cluster strategy, for example, shows how space-related developments can attract new opportunities to the area.

"Meanwhile, our area produces renewable energy at a rate more than a hundred times greater than local consumption. We have offshore wind and hydrogen projects in development that can provide valuable long-term skilled employment opportunities in rural communities.

“We also have significant expertise in highly regulated, technically challenging developments. And we have an existing supply chain, a welcoming community and universal support from all CNSRP member organisations.

“These are all great strengths that will become increasingly important as developments such as Space Hub Sutherland take shape and as the country makes the transition to an economy based on net-zero emissions.”

Fifteen sites had been long-listed following an open call for sites between December 2020 and March this year.

The STEP project aims to generate net electricity as well as demonstrating how the plant will be maintained and how it will produce its own fuel.

STEP is expected to create thousands of skilled jobs during construction and operations and attract other high-tech industries to its host region.

Fusion has the potential to provide a near-limitless source of low-carbon energy by copying the processes that power the sun and stars where atoms are fused to release energy, creating nearly four million times more energy for every kilogram of fuel than burning coal, oil or gas.

George Freeman, UK government minister for science, research and innovation, said: "Fusion energy has the potential to be a truly revolutionary and inexhaustible energy source that can help us reduce our dependence on unreliable fossil fuels and tackle climate change.

"By building the foundations to unlock the power of fusion energy, including the location of the UK’s first prototype fusion power plant, we are positioning the UK as a global leader in this safe and sustainable power source."

Paul Methven, STEP programme director at UKAEA, said: "The shortlisting of sites is a significant step for the programme as it helps bring this challenging, long-term endeavour to life in the here and now. It also increases our focus as we push on with the design and delivery of what we hope is the world’s first fusion power plant prototype.

"Through the next phase of assessment, we look forward to working with the shortlisted sites and local communities to gain a more in-depth understanding of the socio-economic, commercial and technical conditions associated with each site before we make our final recommendations to the secretary of state in 2022."

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