A few weeks ago I was chatting to Jeremy Corbyn about nuclear energy, and he mentioned when he was a teenager his father worked at Culham as an engineer supporting research into nuclear fusion. Without wishing to be ungallant, that was probably some 50 years ago. There was great excitement then about the potential of fusion technology, and visiting Culham earlier this week I witnessed that anticipation of the future is still apparent.
While the 80 hectare site may sit slightly incongruously amongst the villages of South Oxfordshire (it was previously an airfield), it has an identity which is world renowned. Since 1965, Culham has been at the heart of fusion research and has been integral to the progress made in producing energy from fusion. While it might be another 30 years or more before fusion reactors are scalable and able to generate power consistently, there is a discernible clarity of purpose. Painstaking research, innovative technology and the application of advanced physics are combined in the quest for the abundant, reliable, low carbon energy which can help power the future. It is also a truly international and collaborative effort – with combined European, US, Chinese, Russian, Japanese, South Korean and Indian funding for research and development for the ITER fusion project, and the JET European facility on site too.
While nuclear fission technology currently provides about 20% of the electricity generated in the UK and there are advanced plans for nuclear new build and an emerging interest in small modular reactors, fusion is sometimes presented by advocates and sceptics alike as something not only remote but entirely separate from the rest of the civil nuclear industry.
While the funding for the research may come from international and European sources, there are shared benefits from the long term work being done on fusion for the entire nuclear sector. This is something which has been recognised at Culham with the establishment of the new RACE (Remote Applications in Challenging Environments) research building, which will be formally opened by the Minister for Science.
Robotics have been used on JET for many years, but the technological advance and innovation can be applicable to more efficient and cost-effective decommissioning, in offshore oil, gas and wind operations and in many other ways. The expertise and innovation has a wider benefit beyond fusion research.
Sometimes in the energy industry, while focussing on our own particular roles and responsibilities, we find it too easy to miss what is going on around us. Perhaps if we were able to also think a little more about not just what we do, but what others do which could also help us, then we might make our collective task more manageable. This is as true between fusion and fission as it is between nuclear and renewables, and, indeed, other energy sources that will help meet our need for secure and low carbon energy sources for the future.