SCOTLAND has lost out on the chance to host a “pioneering” nuclear fusion plant as the project was awarded to a rival location south of the Border.

A group involving Glasgow University and North Ayrshire Council had put in a bid to host the Spherical Tokamak for Energy Production (Step) on the Ardeer Peninsula, near Stevenston but has lost out to a competitor in West Burton, Nottinghamshire.

It would have seen the project – which critics have said is experimental technology – bring around 4500 jobs to North Ayrshire.

Making the announcement at the Tory party conference yesterday, Energy Secretary Jacob Rees-Mogg said: "We will build the UK’s first prototype fusion energy plant in Nottinghamshire, replacing the West Burton coal-fired power station with a beacon of bountiful green energy.”

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“The plant will be the first of its kind, built by 2040 and capable of putting energy on the grid, and in doing so will prove the commercial viability of fusion energy to the world.”

The National: A CGI of how the STEP Tokamak nuclear fusion plant could look (Image: UK Atomic Energy Authority)A CGI of how the STEP Tokamak nuclear fusion plant could look (Image: UK Atomic Energy Authority) (Image: UK Atomic Energy Authority)

The Fusion Forward (Ardeer) bid made it to the final five of the competition and was the only Scottish site considered in the final judgement.

Organisations including Scottish Enterprise, Skills Development Scotland, the Scottish Council for Development and Industry, the Federation of Small Businesses and the Scottish Trades Union Congress had expressed their support for Step to be based in Ayrshire.

Colleges and universities had also planned for specialist training courses, from apprenticeships to PHDs which would have served the site.

Could fusion yet come to Scotland? 

But the leader of the Scottish bid, Professor Declan Diver of Glasgow University, indicated he was not giving up his hope for future nuclear fusion sites to be based in Scotland.

He said: “While I’m disappointed that our bid to bring Step to North Ayrshire was unsuccessful, I’m pleased that the UK is set to make fusion a viable source of zero-carbon power.

“Over the course of the last 18 months, we’ve done a great deal of work to win the backing of the business, education and skills sectors across Scotland.

The National: Jacob Rees-Mogg announced Nottinghamshire as the home of the UK's prototype fusion reactor yesterdayJacob Rees-Mogg announced Nottinghamshire as the home of the UK's prototype fusion reactor yesterday (Image: PA)

“In doing so, we’ve created a framework for collaboration that could easily be used to support future bids to bring large-scale infrastructure and investment projects to Ardeer.

“There’s also the possibility that Step-related opportunities could come to the region between now and 2040, when the plant is expected to start generating power.

“The skills and supply chain for Step, administered by the Nuclear Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre, could benefit from industry support in Scotland not just for fusion but also for the aerospace, defence and offshore renewables sectors, helping to boost local economies.”

North Ayrshire Council leader Marie Burns said: “While it is clear there will be disappointment for many that Ardeer won’t be home to the fusion plant, there is still much to be positive about.

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“We have shown what is possible for a unique location like Ardeer and we know that it remains a prime site ready for the right development.

“We will continue to pursue innovation and investment opportunities throughout North Ayrshire, and this process has demonstrated that our area has much to offer as a desirable location for large-scale investment.

“The experience we have gained working with partners on this project puts us in a strong position for commercial development and very attractive to prospective investors and employers.

“While the Step plant would have brought significant investment, jobs and training opportunities to North Ayrshire and the west of Scotland, we will continue to explore different possibilities and opportunities for our area. 

“It’s important that we don’t lose momentum and it’s clear there is an appetite from national agencies such as Scottish Enterprise, Skills Development Scotland, the Scottish Council for Development and Industry among others, to usher in a new era of innovation in our area.

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“We will do everything we can to ensure that North Ayrshire will benefit from Step and the emerging UK fusion energy industry, as part of the large-scale supply chains and advanced manufacturing in not only this but other burgeoning areas such as aerospace and offshore renewables.”

What is nuclear fusion? 

Fusion is the process which goes on inside the sun and creates energy by forcing atoms together. It remains experimental with scientists struggling to harness the clean power created by the process, which is the opposite of nuclear fission, where atoms are ripped apart to create power.

While others were dismayed at the development, the Scottish Greens expressed scepticism about the merits of the project.

Mark Ruskell, the party’s energy spokesperson, said the UK Government should be investing in renewables rather than nuclear fusion.

Ruskell added: “The climate emergency is happening all around us, we don't have time to waste by pouring billions of pounds of public money into unproven technology.

“Fusion may have a role in the future, but there is a long way to go before we will know if it is safe or viable. We cannot pin our hopes for decarbonising our economy on technology that is still years away.

“Nor can support for fusion technology undo the terrible damage that is being done by an energy policy that is based on fossil fuels and the dirty energy sources of the past.”

"This may not directly impact Scotland, but we all have an interest in governments across the UK taking effective climate action rather than throwing away the little time that we have left.

“Many of the clean technologies that could make a real difference already exist. The UK government should instead focus on the major investment we need in renewables and in building an energy sector that works for people and the planet.”