Plans to regulate UK fusion energy sector ‘help do away with uncertainty’

Out-Law News | 23 Jun 2022 | 1:34 pm | 2 min. read

Legal experts have welcomed UK government plans to regulate future fusion energy facilities under the legal framework that is already in place for the technology.

Michael Freeman, nuclear regulatory expert at Pinsent Masons, said: “Fusion developers and those looking to take forward projects and plans will welcome the government’s decision. The move will help do away with uncertainty around increased regulation or a lengthy consenting process, which in all likelihood would have led to delays and increases in costs.”

His comments came as the government published its response (64 pages / 587KB PDF) to a public consultation that explored whether the existing regulatory framework that applies to fusion would be fit for purpose over the next 20 to 30 years. It also examined whether an alternative approach or a new independent fusion regulator would be required.

Ministers concluded that, although the hazards and complexities associated with fusion energy facilities will be greater than those associated with the current research facilities in future, the UK’s existing regulations would be able to “uphold safety standards in a proportionate way”. The government also said it would be “disproportionate and unnecessary” to incorporate fusion energy facilities into nuclear regulations, because of the fundamental differences between nuclear fission and fusion.

While nuclear fission releases energy by splitting heavy atomic elements apart, fusion works on the principle of producing energy by forcing lighter atomic nuclei together. Fusion has the potential to provide a long-term source of low carbon energy that is nearly four million times as efficient as burning coal, oil or gas. Unlike nuclear fission, the fusion process does not involve a nuclear meltdown risk or produce the most hazardous category of radioactive waste. The government therefore concluded that there were “fundamental differences” in fission and fusion’s risk profiles and hazard potential.

Freeman said: “It is encouraging to see that the government has taken into account the majority view when it comes to the differences between the generation of nuclear power via the fission process and fusion energy facilities. It will now use the Energy Security Bill to amend the 1965 Nuclear Installations Act to ‘explicitly exclude fusion energy facilities from the regulatory and licensing requirements’ so that fusion energy facilities will not be legally defined as nuclear installations for the purposes of the UK’s nuclear regulatory regimes.”

The government also concluded that the hazards associated with fusion energy facilities do not warrant a change in regulator. It means that the Environment Agency, the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency and the Health and Safety Executive, will continue their joint oversight of the industry, and fusion energy facilities will remain outside of the regulatory remit of the Office for Nuclear Regulation.

Regulators will also be supported by technical experts from the UK Health Security Agency and the UK Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA). This regime will apply to all prototype fusion energy facilities currently being planned in the UK, including those flagged for deployment in the 2030s and 2040s.

Richard Griffiths, planning and energy expert at Pinsent Masons, said: “The government has also expressed how it must uphold ‘clear separation’ between the regulators and fusion developers, but recognised that appropriate engagement between both will be necessary for the regulatory framework to be effective.”

“The government has encouraged firms in the fusion sector to work together on analysis that focuses on the potential risks and hazards connected with the technology, and remains confident in the findings of the UKAEA Technology Report (45 pages / 1.42MB PDF) published last year,” Griffiths said.

He added: “We can expect to see regulatory justification for the UKAEA’s ‘Spherical Tokamak for Energy Production’ (STEP) programme, intended to produce a concept design for a more compact and efficient fusion energy facility, in the coming months. We can also expect to see a ‘National Fusion Policy Statement’ in order to align the planning process for fusion energy facilities with other Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects (NSIPs) under the 2008 Planning Act regime.”

The government’s response comes after the Joint European Torus, based in the UK, announced a breakthrough in fusion energy research and achieved record levels of sustained fusion energy production earlier this year.