Clause 116 - Fusion energy facilities: nuclear site licence not required

Energy Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 12:00 pm on 8 June 2023.

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Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Caroline Nokes Caroline Nokes Chair, Women and Equalities Committee, Chair, Women and Equalities Committee

With this it will be convenient to discuss new clause 51— Fusion energy facilities: nuclear site licensing—

“The Secretary of State must consult on and establish a revised nuclear site licence regime for fusion energy which will not be subject to the full range of safeguards associated with the use of fissionable materials but must have regard to the residual radioactivity of the proceeds of fusion activity.”

Photo of Andrew Bowie Andrew Bowie Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Energy Security and Net Zero)

Clause 116 clarifies the regulatory framework for fusion energy facilities by explicitly excluding them from nuclear site licensing requirements. That will provide certainty for the public, regulators, and fusion developers and investors. We are acting now to deliver on the Government’s fusion strategy, which was published last year and set out how the UK aims to commercialise fusion energy, which could provide a source of low carbon, safe, secure and effectively unlimited energy.

The UK is widely recognised as a world leader in the most promising fusion technologies. For example, the UK’s ambitious spherical tokamak for energy production programme—STEP— aims to develop and build a fusion prototype powerplant in the UK by 2040. That is only 17 years away. We announced in October 2022 that the site for STEP would be at West Burton in Nottinghamshire, which will help to bring high-skilled jobs and investment to that region.

Experimental fusion facilities currently operating in the UK are regulated under a framework that is separate from the nuclear site licensing regime. Under that framework, the Environment Agency and the Health and Safety Executive have, since 1983, successfully regulated the Joint European Torus, which is currently the most powerful operational fusion device in the world. It is run by the UK Atomic Energy Authority in Oxfordshire, which I have had the pleasure of visiting.

Following consideration of the responses from last year’s consultation on fusion regulation, the Government have decided that this framework would provide proportionate and appropriate regulation of future fusion energy facilities. It is a position supported by the current regulators. Clause 116 makes the UK the first country in the world to legislate for fusion energy. It will enable the sector to plan with confidence, based on a regulatory framework that will continue to maintain public and environmental safety, helping to encourage investment and accelerating the commercialisation of fusion energy.

Photo of Alan Whitehead Alan Whitehead Shadow Minister (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) (Energy and Climate Change), Shadow Minister (Climate Change and Net Zero)

This is a bit of a stand-alone clause, in as much as it seeks to separate fusion energy from fission energy in terms of its future regulation. As the Minister set out, it is a pretty negative clause, in as much as it appears to suggest that fusion energy is equivalent to worrying about regulation for a warehouse or a general industrial site, as opposed to what is, in the Nuclear Installations Act 1965, a very systematic programme of regulation and care taken for the installation of nuclear plants.

The clause effectively says that we do not want anything to do with the Nuclear Installations Act, and the safeguards, arrangements and regulations that have been in place for a long time with regard to licensing, the progress of nuclear site safety, the disposal of radioactive waste, and various other things. That is a mistake that will come back to bite the Government if the clause stands part. It is simply not true that fusion reactors are like warehouses; they are substantial radioactivity producers in their own right. They produce radioactivity in different ways than fission, and in smaller amounts.

Photo of Katherine Fletcher Katherine Fletcher Conservative, South Ribble 12:15, 8 June 2023

This summer, along with colleagues on the Science and Technology Committee, I had the opportunity to visit the Torus at Oxford—a particularly impressive site—and to hear from not only academic scientists but private businesses, and they were calling for this measure. Having seen as a little girl, and worked in, the nuclear fission industry in Sellafield, I can assure the hon. Gentleman that these are two completely separate processes. The stripping of electrons to produce a plasma—while nuclear, in that it is engaging with nuclear atoms in the centre—is not the same as splitting large amounts of, say, uranium and creating by-products that could be injurious to human health and require an enormous amount of regulation, such as alpha and beta radiation. Does he agree that it is possible that in seeking to be mega safe, we risk choking off an energy source that could be the answer for all our futures, and one in which Britain is genuinely recognised as a global leader?

Photo of Alan Whitehead Alan Whitehead Shadow Minister (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) (Energy and Climate Change), Shadow Minister (Climate Change and Net Zero)

The hon. Member is right that the processes are quite different—I was about to put forward a few reflections on that—but they are not completely unconnected. As she mentioned, fusion is essentially about containing a very high-temperature process of the fusion of molecules into other molecules—

Photo of Alan Whitehead Alan Whitehead Shadow Minister (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) (Energy and Climate Change), Shadow Minister (Climate Change and Net Zero)

Into a plasma within a contained vessel. The processes of producing that plasma for the purposes of electricity generation are indeed very different from producing steam, effectively, for electricity generation through the decay of radioactive isotopes within a controlled reactor. However, what happens when that plasma is produced is that a very large amount of neutrons are released, which bombard the sides of the vessels within which the whole process is contained so that, over a period of time, the atomic structure of those vessels starts to change and there is considerable radioactivity contained within the vessels, which, when the site is decommissioned, would have to be taken down and probably stored in a repository in the long term because of its enduring radioactivity. The hon. Member is also right to say that the life of the radioactivity that is produced in the plasma process is a question of, among other things, tritium.

Photo of Katherine Fletcher Katherine Fletcher Conservative, South Ribble

Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that an individual neutron is a body that can further emit a radioactive source? That cannot be true. Radioactivity, by its nature, is the smaller bits that come as a co-product. While I accept that there is a need to make sure that any industry is responsible and can look after itself, it is about making sure that the industry is being properly regulated, but perhaps not regulated as a fission nuclear site. I am sure he will agree that although the containment vessel is important in the process, it is actually about the generation of the electromagnetic fields that contain the plasma, which is the subject of much research at the moment and would prevent the problem he is describing—of neutron leaking into both the concrete and steel containers. Will he clarify that point? A neutron, in itself, can only decay into quarks. That is what the clever guys at CERN do when they smash things together at speed.

Photo of Alan Whitehead Alan Whitehead Shadow Minister (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) (Energy and Climate Change), Shadow Minister (Climate Change and Net Zero)

The hon. Member is of course right to say that neutrons, in their own right, cannot produce radioactivity, but that is not what I was saying. What I was saying is that the process by which neutrons are released to bombard the vessel in which the process is contained indirectly produces radioactivity through changes in the structure of that outer casing. Perhaps I can inform the Committee briefly by setting out the description in a recent note from the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, which says:

“To produce usable heat, the neutron streams carrying 80 percent of the energy from deuterium-tritium fusion must be decelerated and cooled by the reactor structure, its surrounding lithium-containing blanket, and the coolant. The neutron radiation damage in the solid vessel wall is expected to be worse than in fission reactors because of the higher neutron energies. Fusion neutrons knock atoms out of their usual lattice positions, causing swelling and fracturing of the structure. Also, neutron-induced reactions generate large amounts of interstitial helium and hydrogen, forming gas pockets that lead to additional swelling, embrittlement, and fatigue. These phenomena put the integrity of the reaction vessel in peril.”

I think the hon. Member will be clear from that that it is not the neutrons that are the issue; it is the radiation.

Photo of Katherine Fletcher Katherine Fletcher Conservative, South Ribble

I will be very brief, I promise.

Photo of Caroline Nokes Caroline Nokes Chair, Women and Equalities Committee, Chair, Women and Equalities Committee

Both your previous interventions have been quite long. Perhaps you might consider making a full contribution when Dr Whitehead has come to the end of his remarks.

Photo of Katherine Fletcher Katherine Fletcher Conservative, South Ribble

I will take your advice, Ms Nokes.

Photo of Alan Whitehead Alan Whitehead Shadow Minister (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) (Energy and Climate Change), Shadow Minister (Climate Change and Net Zero)

I hope we have established that it is not the case that fusion activity is much more advantageous than fission from a safety and waste point of view. It is not, in itself, radioactive neutral. Additionally, the process produces a relatively small amount of tritium—much more of which is produced in fission reactors—which clings to the vessels and can get into the waste stream and produce radioactive water. Although that is not a big concern, it certainly needs to be taken into account as far as safety features of the overall plants are concerned. The case that I am trying to make is that, though it is important to progress with fusion—which is a much safer and, as the Minister said, potentially much more abundant source of energy—we should not be blind to its side effects.

As I have described, the side effects are not just about the problem of the potential embrittlement of the casing and the need to treat that casing in due course, the need to stop tritium release through lithium blankets around the sphere core and the difficulty of making those blankets completely sealable. All those things suggest that the sorts of actions in the nuclear installation regulations and the Nuclear Installations Act 1965 are rather more pertinent than we might have thought, than the Minister suggested or than the clause seems to provide. I suggest a modest revision of the clause so that, instead of dismissing the safety concerns about and operational arrangements for fusion, it brings forward a revised, and perhaps acceptably less rigorous, process that nevertheless falls within overall nuclear guidelines for fusion activities.

In any debate on fusion, it has always been said that fusion is a very bright future for us but that it is 40 years away. Well, it is not 40 years away now; it is much closer to being realised. As the Minister said, in the UK, spherical tokamak for energy production is potentially producing good results, so we could be a few years away from having to get this regime right, and it is right that we do so now. Our new clause 51, which—for the guidance of those who have given up going through all the amendments and new clauses in the amendment paper—is to be found right at the back on page 58, states:

“The Secretary of State must consult on and establish a revised nuclear site licence regime for fusion energy which will not be subject to the full range of safeguards associated with the use of fissionable materials but must have regard to the residual radioactivity of the proceeds of fusion activity.”

That is a sensible alternative that will not, or should not, in any way impede the development of fusion, but will provide a clear understanding as to what we are dealing with as far as fusion is concerned. It would be a programme of appropriate and proportionate safeguards—yes, associated with nuclear safeguards in the background—that makes clear the very different circumstances under which fusion works. That would be helpful.

Photo of Andrew Western Andrew Western Labour, Stretford and Urmston

I am listening carefully to the debate that is unfolding. We appear to be heading towards a binary position—fulfilling all the requirements under the Nuclear Installations Act 1965 or effectively removing all the requirements as the fusion process comes in. Does my hon. Friend agree that actually the balance of risk is not binary in that way—that fusion can activate the walls of the plasma vessel as he has set out and that therefore, although we all agree that we should seek to step down some of the licensing requirements, it would indeed be prudent to have some process, subject to broader restrictions around nuclear, that would place us within the realms of acting in a way that is “better safe than sorry”?

Photo of Alan Whitehead Alan Whitehead Shadow Minister (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) (Energy and Climate Change), Shadow Minister (Climate Change and Net Zero) 12:30, 8 June 2023

My hon. Friend has put forward very well a potential problem that we are moving towards here—a problem that the new clause, which I am sure he will support, is designed to get us out of. This is a specific solution to the potentially binary nature of the debate. It is to accept that some safeguards are necessary, that there is some radioactivity, that it is not of the same nature or extent as under fissionable arrangements and that it is not necessary to put in place all the same safeguards as for fissionable activity, as if fusion were just a subset of fissionable activity. I recognise that that is not the case and that the safety regime need not be the same as for everything related to fissionable activity.

This morning, I heard the Minister say that the Government are perhaps thinking about some form of regulation that would go beyond what appears to be the negative nature of this particular proposal, but at the moment I cannot see any moves in that direction. The new clause would, I think, give us the best of both worlds. It would allow us to proceed with fusion activity with safety clearly uppermost in our minds, but we would not be impeding the process by the way we regulated. We would all want this to happen. It is a proper arrangement as far as safety is concerned, and would enable proper progress as far as fusion is concerned.

Once again, if the Minister is not more forthcoming in moving away from the position of this particular new clause, we may want to divide on it: it is an important principle that we should get regulation right, from the start of the fusion process. I agree with the Minister that it could mean an exciting future, but it needs to have the proper safeguards in place for it to work in all our interests in the years to come.

Photo of Katherine Fletcher Katherine Fletcher Conservative, South Ribble

Thank you, Ms Nokes, and I apologise for not prosecuting my arguments procedurally in the correct way earlier. I want to respond to what the hon. Member for Southampton, Test has said. I completely accept that he has tabled his new clause in the spirit of public safety, but I do think that this is an area that could be better understood by the public. I gently suggest to him that there might be a slight misapprehension in some of the material that he just quoted from.

What the hon. Gentleman was describing was neutrons degrading a physical structure, as a by-product of the plasma. There is an analogy here: it is almost like it getting shot at or water going through a concrete structure and then causing rust and degrading the steel within it. That is not necessarily the creation of a nuclear radioactive source; that is something being peppered with neutrons. And that is why it is not a commercially viable facility at the moment—because there are still things to be worked out, not least how we ensure that we do not build a very expensive thing that, by its own nature, then degrades over time and use. But that is not the same as creating a radioactive source.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned deuterium and tritium, which are different types of naturally occurring hydrogen elements. Tritium sounds, to my ear, almost like something that the Terminator would be using to do something particularly exciting. In fact, it is only a hydrogen that occurs in nature and that has a single proton and two neutrons within the nucleus, so it is a bit bigger and heavier than is typical. What that means is that it is a little more unstable. The natural half-life of tritium is 12 years, whereas the nuclear regulations that the hon. Gentleman seeks to apply or partially apply in this instance are designed to deal with things that have half-lives of thousands of years. Someone will tell me that I have this wrong, but with uranium-238 we are talking about very different orders of magnitude—

Photo of Olivia Blake Olivia Blake Labour, Sheffield, Hallam

I am a biomedical scientist by background, so I come to this with a medical perspective. The issue with tritium is that it produces beta waves, which are a more damaging form of radiation to human tissues—only in a minor way, as it has a score of 1 compared with 20 for alpha waves, but there is an underlying risk. Exposure of the workforce to that level continuously could put DNA stability at risk, because it is an ionising form of radiation. If there is a problem—containment is always a big challenge that gets raised by scientists—hopefully we will overcome it, but it is right to have the protections, particularly for the workforce. That is why I welcome new clause 51.

Photo of Katherine Fletcher Katherine Fletcher Conservative, South Ribble

I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. Of course beta radiation is produced when a nucleus is separated, when the neutrons in tritium move away. For me, it is a question of proportionality and risk. At the moment, there is no viable commercial solution, so there is not a workforce but a research community, which is publicly and privately funded. On that becoming a workforce solution, I agree with her that ensuring that people are safe at work is vital but, should this come about, the Health and Safety Executive will not leave it unmonitored. However, new clause 51 is not about workplace safety; it is about putting something that is fundamentally not nuclear fission, as opposed to nuclear fusion, into a set of regulations designed to deal with such things.

I wondered about the criteria, given that the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam mentioned radioactivity occurring in the fusion environment. What percentage of Cornwall, with its radon gas, might be caught up in the thresholds? I will be interested to pursue on Report what we are actually talking about. As a scientist, the hon. Lady knows that 100 is very different from 1, even though 1 poses some risk.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Southampton, Test for tabling the new clause, but given the opportunity for clean, net zero energy—which really could be the panacea for the world, as tree-huggers like me would say—in the UK we should look to tread lightly, but carefully, with any regulation of an industry that has such a level of potential and to which the UK has contributed so much already. He mentioned torus structures, but those are only one of a series of different potential generational tools—torus might be the research tool, not the commercial tool, so his concerns could disappear with a completely different production facility, perhaps based on electromagnetic rather than physical containment.

With regret, because I understand the genuine and heartfelt nature of the hon. Gentleman’s new clause, I think it is important that we do not stifle a nascent industry with regulation. I will therefore support the Government’s position.

Photo of Andrew Bowie Andrew Bowie Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Energy Security and Net Zero)

I thank my hon. Friend and Opposition Members for a fascinating discussion of the clause and new clause 51, and of how we proceed with regulation of this nascent industry—a technology in which we are leading the world, as has been said multiple times. Such comments have also been made in various legislatures around the world, including the US Senate, in which a wish was recently expressed to match the progress being made in the United Kingdom and to have a framework such as the one in which we have allowed fusion technology to be developed.

The Government’s plans are about working up from the frameworks that apply to existing fusion sites, rather than working down from them. We believe that the new clause could stifle the development of the technology that we have been exploring in depth this morning. It is vital to stress that we are not—definitely not—trying to make fusion energy facilities avoid licensing requirements. Nor are we seeking to water down any regulations. For a fusion energy facility to be developed and operated in a lawful way, it must go through permitting and consenting processes governed by the relevant regulators. In England, those are the Environment Agency and the Health and Safety Executive. This is consistent with how other facilities with radioactive materials such as cyclotrons and large-scale industrial irradiators are regulated for at the moment.

The regulatory process that we have right now requires fusion energy facilities to go through various approval stages as well as ongoing compliance and engagement. The requirements associated with those regulatory obligations are proportionate to the hazard associated with the fusion energy facility. I should also say the legislative consent motion procedure has been invoked. We have already consulted the Scottish Government on the procedure and they raised no concerns; obviously, there are separate regulations and bodies responsible for the issue in Scotland.

We do not believe that fusion energy facilities should require nuclear site licences. That is what we are discussing this morning. They should not go through the process requiring nuclear site licences because, following consultation, we believe that that would be disproportionate to the hazards associated with fusion. Such hazards, as various hon. Members have explained in greater detail than I would ever be able to, are significantly lower than with nuclear fission, and the regulatory frameworks required for fission would therefore be too burdensome for the technology.

The Government agreed with the majority of the consultation respondents that the existing regulatory processes of consenting and permitting would be proportionate and appropriate for fusion energy facilities. That was all set out in a full consultation that preceded the introduction of the Bill. We see no need to consult again on the same issue at this time. I hope I have been able to set the minds of the hon. Member for Southampton Test and others at rest following their justifiable, reasonable and well thought through questions on this matter. I hope that he will feel able to withdraw his amendment.

Photo of Caroline Nokes Caroline Nokes Chair, Women and Equalities Committee, Chair, Women and Equalities Committee

The new clause has been debated, but we will not be taking a decision on it at this point.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 116 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.