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‘Path forward conceivable’ for UK participation in Iter fusion facility

Image: ITER

Discussions with international fusion energy project “ongoing” despite UK departure from EU nuclear programme

There is “conceivably a path forward” for UK participation in the international fusion energy research facility Iter, Research Professional News has been told by a spokesperson for the facility.

British links with the boundary-pushing fusion demonstration plant, under construction in France, looked at risk of being broken after the UK government last year decided not to rejoin the EU’s nuclear research and training programme, Euratom.

Despite choosing to invest in a domestic fusion R&D programme instead of joining Euratom, hopes remained among researchers that the UK would find a new way to participate in Iter. The Financial Times recently reported that the EU was blocking UK participation unless the country rejoins Euratom.

But Laban Coblentz, a spokesperson for Iter, said: “All the parties that I have spoken to have made it clear that there’s goodwill, there is conceivably a path forward.” Coblentz added that there is “mutual recognition” of the value of UK collaboration.

“The UK is a powerhouse in fusion R&D, has been for decades, so it is to everybody’s benefit if that collaboration continues,” he said.

A spokesperson for the UK Atomic Energy Authority, a government research agency responsible for developing fusion energy, said that “discussions between UKAEA and Iter parties are genuinely ongoing”.

Collaboration avenues

Coblentz outlined possible avenues by which the UK could participate in Iter, including aiming for a bilateral deal with Fusion for Energy, the European agency that manages the EU’s participation in the facility. However, the European Commission appeared to rule this option out, telling Research Professional News that to work with Fusion for Energy, the UK would have to rejoin Euratom.

The UK could also aim to join Iter as an associate member, which both Australia and Kazakhstan have done, or could propose joining as a new full member, Coblentz said. Both options would require approval by Iter’s council, which includes representatives of its seven members: EU, China, India, Japan, Russia, South Korea and the United States.

However, every current member has a veto on admitting a new full or associate member. There has also not been a new full member since Iter’s founding treaty was signed in 2006.

Despite the possibility of the EU exercising its veto over UK membership, Coblentz said that “every member stands to benefit by additional collaboration, when that collaboration has the ability to contribute financially, technologically, scientifically, and has the necessary political will”.

Ongoing political negotiations between the EU and Switzerland, which include membership of both Euratom and Iter, also make the situation more complex. Switzerland left Euratom when it walked away from a broader cooperation agreement with the EU in 2021, but there is optimism that a new deal is within reach.

“If you are considering any sort of new member or renewal of collaboration, you’re always thinking [that] what we do for one ought to be equitable or suitably taking into account what we would do for another,” Coblentz said.

No cliff edge

British membership of Euratom up until 2021 meant that British nationals and companies could hold contracts to work at Iter, but the number of remaining contracts has been eroding over time. In March 2023 there were 21 UK scientists still employed at Iter, but Coblentz pushed back on the Financial Times reporting that any remaining contracts are coming to an end in August.

“I don’t know of any sort of cliff that we’re coming up to,” he said.

The number of contracts with UK companies has plummeted though, and some industry voices have raised concerns. The Commission said that of 255 contracts via Fusion for Energy involving the UK during 2009-20, just six remain active. Coblentz said that some UK companies have created subsidiaries in Europe to remain eligible for Iter contracts.

Chris Pook, government policy director at the UK Nuclear Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre, said it was important to “find a way forward that meets the needs of all concerned as soon as possible”.

“Ongoing uncertainty damages the ability of the research base and industrial suppliers to invest in the long-term capability that will be required to support the development of Iter and the wider industrialisation of the fusion sector,” Pook said.

The UK government appears optimistic that a solution can be reached and said there was precedent for lab-to-lab agreements with Iter parties.

“Our approach is backed by the UK fusion industry that ensures we are at the forefront of this emerging clean energy market. International collaboration remains a key pillar of our strategy and we hope continued UKAEA collaboration with Iter partners can be agreed,” a UK government spokesperson said.

A version of this article also appeared in Research Fortnight