06/01/2021 | Press release | Archived content
A new report published today (Tuesday 1 June) has set out how the UK can support the rapid and safe introduction of fusion energy as the technology develops.
Produced by the Regulatory Horizons Council (RHC), an independent expert committee which identifies regulation required to foster technical innovation, the report makes recommendations on how fusion energy should be regulated in light of its inherently lower risk than nuclear alternatives.
Fusion is the process that powers the sun. A fusion power plant would combine hydrogen atoms to generate energy without giving off the carbon emissions that contribute to climate change. The UK hopes to deliver the world's first prototype fusion power plant, STEP (Spherical Tokamak for Energy Production), by 2040.
The RHC report states that innovation-friendly regulation will allow the technology to be rolled out quickly and safely, boosting the confidence of both the public and investors.
Science Minister Amanda Solloway said:
Fusion energy has enormous potential, offering an inexhaustible source of zero-carbon energy and helping us to cement the UK's position as a science superpower.
Today's report helps put the foundations in place to deliver the world's first prototype fusion plant by 2040 and ensures we can capitalise on the exciting innovation taking place right here in the UK.
Focusing on the STEP programme announced in October 2019, the report recommends the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and the Environment Agency lead on developing current regulations and putting the best framework in place for the technology to flourish.
Due to the lower risk associated with fusion that with nuclear fission, the report recommends that the current regulatory approach, led by HSE and the Environment Agency, is the most appropriate framework and that the more stringent regulations applied to nuclear energy would be disproportionate.
To ensure the target of delivering a fusion plant by 2040 is met, the report also recommends the government consults with business and the public on its plans for fusion energy in summer 2021 and begins a public awareness programme to increase understanding of the topic. Additionally, it advises that a joint guidance document is produced by EA, HSE and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) to provide further clarity and ensure confidence in the technology.
Following the publication of the report, the government has today confirmed that it will launch a consultation on fusion energy regulation later this year, allowing industry and the public to have their say. The government has published an interim response to the RHC report and will respond to the report in full in early 2022 after its consultation.
Fusion is currently regulated by the Environment Agency (EA) and the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) in England. Legislation which determines environmental protection regulation for fusion apply in England only and is enforced by EA. Regulators in each of the other nations in the UK have the responsibility for carrying out this same function. Health and Safety regulation, currently enforced by HSE, applies across Great Britain but is devolved in Northern Ireland where the Health and Safety Executive Northern Ireland have responsibility.
The Regulatory Horizons Council (RHC) is an independent committee, sponsored by the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), that identifies the implications of technological innovation. It provides government with impartial, expert advice on the regulatory reform required to support its rapid and safe introduction of new technologies.
It was set up further to recommendations from the government's white paper on Regulating for the Fourth Industrial Revolution and started the fusion energy regulation report in September 2020, alongside other reports on genetic technologies, medical devices, and remotely piloted aircraft systems. It has recently selected the areas of work it will cover later this year, which are pro-innovation regulatory principles, neurotechnology, AI in healthcare, and hydrogen.
Fusion energy research aims to bring the power source of the stars down to earth to give us low-carbon electricity for millennia to come. When light nuclei fuse to form a heavier nucleus, they release bursts of energy. This is the opposite of nuclear fission - the reaction that is used in nuclear power stations today - in which energy is released when a nucleus splits apart to form smaller nuclei. For additional detail on fusion energy please consult the UKAEA's Fusion in brief guide.