HAMISH Morrison’s article “Scotland’s Ardeer bid for new nuclear fusion plant beaten by Nottinghamshire site” (Oct 4) highlights the unwise push for fusion in the UK at this point in time.

The UK Government has announced £220 million for stage one (of three stages) funding for the Spherical Tokamak for Energy Production (Step). This is the UK Government-backed fusion energy programme that aims to generate net electricity as well as demonstrating how the plant will be maintained, its economic feasibility and how to produce its own fuel, tritium.

There are, however, more than a few problems with this initiative.

First of all, it must be stated that nuclear fusion has no bearing on averting catastrophic climate change. IPCC scientists say it is “now or never” to limit global warming to 1.5C.

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The UK Atomic Energy Authority expects Step to be operational by 2040. This is a wish, not scientific fact. I recall nuclear physicists working on nuclear fusion in the 1970s promising to have a tokamak fusion reactor operational by 1985. I and the rest of humanity are still waiting.

Now consider the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) that is being built in southern France. This is a scientific partnership of 35 countries and, at a cost of more than $22 billion, it claims it will begin fusion by 2035. It seems to all intents and purposes to have broadly similar aims as Step, such as testing tritium breeding and preparing the way for a machine that can capture the energy that it produces.

ITER is the most complex scientific endeavour in mankind’s history with 10 million specialised components being manufactured all over the world. To that end, the director-general of ITER has said that “no country could do this alone and that “our design has taken advantage of the best expertise of every member’s scientific and industrial base”.

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Even so, there is no guarantee, even for all the human endeavour involved, that ITER will succeed in the timescale predicted – or at all, for that matter.

This is what Step has to be compared with and this, in effect, leads to some basic questions that needs to be answered. If the ITER project fails then what hope is there for Step? Why, therefore, does the government not wait for the outcome of the ITER project?

True, the two projects are not exactly the same – the magnetic containment fields have different configurations – but the technical problems are similar. Billions of pounds could be spent more wisely elsewhere, such as the relief of fuel poverty, particularly at the present time. How many lives would be saved? The government also intends to train thousands of scientists and technicians for a fictitious industry that does not exist and might never exist.

The government hopes that its stage one funding will attract enough private investment to enable Step to succeed. Bearing in mind that Step will require at least £18bn to compete with ITER, how much of taxpayers’ money will be needed for stages two and three to achieve this and what will private companies’ contribution be?

A commercial fusion reactor is predicted produce 2000MW of power. ITER, it is hoped, if it works, will produce 450MW (net) power.

The general public have been led to believe that Step will be a full-scale fusion plant. This is another Tory government myth to add to all the others.

Do government ministers really understand the physics involved and the hurdles to be overcome, or is it just another Tory vanity project? The UK Government’s fusion strategy, “Towards Fusion Energy”, underplays the huge technical problems still to be overcome and instead focuses on the revenue stream if the reactor can be made to work. Indeed, the STEP programme shows very close parallels with President Reagan’s Strategic Defence Initiative (Star Wars Programme).

Some observers might reasonably conclude that the government is purposefully conflating the Step and Small Modular Rector Programmes in order to persuade communities to accept its fission agenda.

A brief word about Brexit. Sorry folks!

Following the UK’s formal exit from the EU on March 29 2019, the legally separate Euratom Treaty was also revoked. In December 2019 the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee published a report stating that “the impact of leaving Euratom will be profound”. One of the profundities is the UK’s expertise shortfall, given that a significant proportion of the UK’s nuclear workforce are non-UK EU nationals.

In line with the UK’s civil nuclear programme, Step will require very high-precision engineered parts that will need to be manufactured abroad. By exiting Euratom, the necessary exchange of information is curtailed, thereby making quality control more of a challenge.

Some may say that all of these problems can be overcome. I say that you are more likely to befriend the tooth fairy.

Gordon Murray