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UK participation in European fusion projects breaking down

Image: ITER

Scientists across the country frozen out of Euratom fusion energy collaborations on the continent

British participation in flagship European fusion energy projects is collapsing due to the UK being shut out of EU R&D programmes, Research Professional News can reveal.

The UK has significant strength in fusion energy research, with the UK Atomic Energy Authority housing vital infrastructure such as the Joint European Torus (Jet), a focal point of European fusion research.

While the government has put in a workaround for UKAEA to keep collaborations with the EU going, UK nuclear scientists on other key projects supported through Euratom—the EU’s nuclear research initiative—face having to switch nationalities to keep working, Research Professional News has found. Meanwhile, scores of contracts for fusion-related work on European schemes held by UK-based companies have expired and not been renewed.

There has been much debate about UK researchers’ ongoing exclusion from the EU’s Horizon Europe R&D programme, but links to other European schemes such as fusion have attracted far less attention.

After leaving the EU in 2020, the UK signed an agreement to remain a part of Euratom, but trade disputes over Northern Ireland have prevented the UK formally associating with the programme, as well as Horizon Europe.

UK participation in Europe-based fusion projects before Brexit was hugely dependent on Euratom, which channels support to multiple fusion projects.

The largest such project is Iter, an international scheme located in southern France. Iter has seven members—China, the EU, Japan, India, South Korea, Russia and the US—with the EU responsible for nearly half the project.

Iter told Research Professional News that since 2020 there have been no new hires of British citizens.

Laban Coblentz, a spokesperson for Iter, said the 21 UK scientists employed at the facility have contracts lasting a maximum of five years. “The contract can be renewed, but the employee is then obliged to change nationality,” Coblentz said.

He added that there are also 60 ongoing contracts with UK companies at Iter, but “most of them end this year, some next”.

The EU’s participation in Iter is managed through Fusion for Energy (F4E), a partnership between the bloc, individual member states and Switzerland that was set up under Euratom.

F4E said that of 255 contracts involving the UK during 2009-2020, just 10 remain active and that there has been a sharp drop in the involvement of UK entities since 2020.

Research Professional News understands that in the absence of association to Euratom, both F4E and Iter have revised their strategies to find expertise and components in the EU or other Iter member countries.

Another EU-funded fusion project has been able to maintain links with the UK’s major fusion research facility.

Eurofusion is a consortium for collaboration on fusion research that funds activities on behalf of Euratom, for which the UK-based Jet is the central research facility. In November last year the UK government provided £84 million for Jet operations, alongside an additional £42m for the UK’s fusion industry.

Tony Donné, programme manager at Eurofusion, said that since 2020 he has been paying for European researchers to use Jet while the UK has been paying for its researchers to use European fusion facilities.

“We try as much as possible to continue working like we did before,” Donné said. But he added that “it’s definitely more complicated…we run into some stupid administrative problems”.

A recent breakthrough in UK-EU political relations has brought fresh hope that the UK will re-join Euratom, but as yet there is no timeframe.

Donné called the UK-EU deal on trade in Northern Ireland “very good news” and said that UK association to Euratom would be “very good for the European fusion programme, because I think it makes the whole setup more coherent”.

While collaboration with UKAEA has continued, Donné also pointed out that in 2020 there were 32 UK universities involved in Eurofusion.

“They are now at this moment completely out of the European programme and that’s not a good thing,” Donné said. “Things become really much easier once the UK associates”.

UKAEA declined to comment. A UK government spokesperson said: “We will continue to discuss how we can work constructively with the EU in a range of areas, including future collaboration on research and innovation.”

The government has said it is taking stock of its 2020 trade and cooperation agreement with the EU, including R&D programmes.

This article also appeared in Research Fortnight and a version appeared in Research Europe