The laboratory testing the science for world's first nuclear fusion plant at West Burton

nuclear fusion
Temperatures in 'the jar' reach 150 million degrees celsius. Credit: UKAEA

After plans were announced for the world's first nuclear fusion energy plant in Retford, Nottinghamshire, ITV News reporter Michael Billington visited the laboratory where scientists are working on the technology behind the plans.

They call it a "star in a jar". But that somewhat understates the spectacular science it contains.

The "jar" is housed behind doors that are 20 metres tall and a metre thick. The "star" at its core glows pink as it reaches 150 million degrees celsius. That, by the way, is ten times hotter than the centre of the sun, making this facility in rural Oxfordshire the hottest place in our solar system.

It is mind boggling technology, and, if all goes to plan, it's coming to a village somewhere between Gainsborough and Retford.

Earlier this year, the government announced the UK would build the world's first nuclear fusion reactor at West Burton power station. The aim is to harness power on a commercial scale, by replicating the nuclear reaction that powers the sun and the stars.

They've been working on it for the last four decades at the UK Atomic Energy Authority facility, convinced that harnessing this phenomenal energy could be the long-term solution to the world's demand for clean power.

An conceptual illustration of the proposed fusion power plant. Credit:

Development engineer Katryia Sawrin said: "It's a strong contender for the future of our grid and energy production. And I think in the future it'll be a blend of renewables as well as fusion, I think that's the way it will work.

"I think we all have a duty to make the world a better place, no matter how long it takes or how much in the future, and I think fusion is going to help everyone."Being inside the replica nuclear reactor they have on site is like stepping into the Tardis. A doughnut-shaped space, its walls are clad with space-age metals. In here, instead of splitting atoms like in a conventional nuclear power plant, particles are instead fused together.

That releases heat which is absorbed into the walls. That heat then produces steam which turns a turbine and produces electricity. The scientists behind it say it could provide a near limitless source of sustainable power.

Inside the replica nuclear reactor, known as 'the jar'. Credit: UKAEA

Mr Denton, head of commercial and programme development, said: "Clearly we don't know exactly when and exactly how. This is an early stage technology - it's technically difficult, but in fact we think that's the exciting part of this journey and we think that's what's exciting to do with communities in Nottinghamshire, Lincolnshire, South Yorkshire, the whole region, is to take this challenge of something that we know can work in principle and make it really work in reality."

They're a long way off from making this work on an industrial scale. The record amount of energy from one of these fusion reactions is 59 Megajoules. That's little more than it takes to run three cycles of a household tumble dryer.But the hope is that the technology can be put to practical use in the second half of the 21st century.

She said: "Fusion energy is incredibly and inherently safe. If the conditions for fusion change, it stops. The process stops immediately, this doesn't have a condition where it gets out of control."

Completely eliminating the need to burn fossil fuels would certainly be a big leap forward in being kinder to our climate. But until they can get more energy out of nuclear fusion than they have to put in, something they've yet to achieve, it raises the question whether this really could be the answer to some of our most pressing climate challenges.This new generation of clean energy could still be a generation away. But the question is whether the climate crisis will have already done irreversible damage, before we even reach a future where the power of the stars also powers our homes.

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