Gleeds lands role on £10bn UK fusion project

Gleeds has been picked to deliver procurement, commercial and cost-management services for the UK’s nuclear fusion programme.

The Spherical Tokamak for Energy Production (STEP) programme will see a prototype plant established at a site in West Burton, Nottinghamshire, where work to demonstrate the viability of nuclear fusion will take place under a £10bn programme.

Gleeds was chosen for the project via the Perfect Circle consortium, which it is a partner of alongside fellow consultants Aecom and Pick Everard.

The consortium was commissioned by the UK Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA) to bring companies on board to engineer and construct the prototype plant.

Gleeds will initially be responsible for providing comprehensive procurement services for the plant.

What is fusion energy?

Nuclear fission, the process by which standard nuclear reactors work, produces energy when a heavy, unstable atom such as uranium decays into a lighter element, releasing energy in the process.

Nuclear fusion is the opposite process. Two light atoms fuse together to form another element, with the excess energy released in the form of heat. Fusion is the same process that powers the sun.

The main advantage of fusion over fission is that it produces very little radioactive waste and no high-level nuclear waste, which is costly to store.

However, producing a fusion reaction is immensely difficult. Gases need to be heated to about 15 million degrees in a special chamber called a tokamak, with the hot plasma controlled by powerful electro-magnets to make sure it does not touch the sides and melt the containment unit. Heat is extracted from the plasma by channelling the gas into a special exchange.

The process has been researched since the 1940s, but is still considered to be in its development phase.

Gleeds global head of energy Andy Ellis said: “This is an incredibly exciting project; not only does it demonstrate viable net energy production, but it also represents an important opportunity for the UK to maintain its role as world leader in fusion technology.

“Fusion will play a hugely important role within the UK clean-energy transition as we seek clean, sustainable, low-cost energy sources to replace fossil fuels, and has the potential to generate almost limitless clean energy for future generations.”

The UK government is providing £220m of funding for the first phase of STEP, which will see UKAEA produce a concept design by 2024.

The government launched its search for a construction partner for the project in August. Atkins has already been named as the engineering partner on the project.

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