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New Energy Security Bill waters down regulation for fusion, warns Nuclear Free Local Authorities

As the Nuclear Free Local Authorities have feared, following a pre-Christmas BEIS consultation, the Johnson Government has recently revealed its plans to relax the regulatory regime applicable to future fusion reactors by choosing not to classify them as ‘nuclear installations’.

Fission nuclear reactors are subject to nuclear site licencing requirements overseen by the Office of Nuclear Regulation under the Nuclear Installations Act 1965 (NIA 1965), but government ministers have now decided that fusion plants should instead be regulated by the Health and Safety Executive and Environment Agency like other industrial facilities. The new Energy Security Bill just introduced to Parliament by the Business Secretary will exclude fusion reactors from the provisions of the NIA 1965.

Ministers claim that fusion does not present the same ‘higher hazards’ found in fission plants, but the NFLA fears that their decision is about making the UK attractive to investors in their haste to make the UK a ‘fusion industry superpower’ rather than prioritising public safety.

In its response to the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) consultation, the NFLA had called for ‘no watering down’ of the regime, challenging the notion that fusion was largely without risk.

For research commissioned by the NFLA revealed that fusion would result in the production of large quantities of radioactive waste, with the risk that radioactive tritium could enter the water supply. Fusion also requires immense temperatures, hotter than the sun, to spark and sustain a fusion reaction and this energy must be safely contained using challenging and unproven engineering solutions. Operation would also result in the whole structure being subjected to prolonged exposure to neutron radiation, a situation which if not carefully monitored could result in the very integrity of the reactor vessel being placed in jeopardy.

The Chair of the NFLA Steering Committee, Councillor David Blackburn, said: “The NFLA’s view is that the government’s decision is misguided. It seems blasé to treat a fusion plant for regulatory purposes in the same way as a factory making chemical products.  Fusion presents some of the same hazards and challenges as fission, but some are new; surely then fusion is nuclear and so a plant utilizing this technology must be a ‘nuclear installation’.

“In the view of the NFLA, there is no logical reason on safety grounds not to apply the same regulatory regime to fusion reactors as fission reactors. By signalling through the Energy Security Act their determination to exclude fusion from the rigours of the licencing regime, it seems clear that the present government is more focused on reducing the regulatory and cost burden on investors and commercial operators entering the market, putting expediency and profits before public safety.” 

In response to other concerns raised by the NFLA, the government has given vague undertakings to introduce new safeguards on radioactive tritium, but makes no mention of plutonium 239, and it is unclear what bespoke security measures would be in place as at existing plants. The government has also agreed to introduce a new third-party insurance liability scheme for plant operators, but this will be less onerous that fission and makes no specific reference to nuclear transport operators.

On waste management and decommissioning, the government’s position is even more unclear with ministers calling it ‘premature’ to outline clear proposals at this time, something the NFLA is especially perturbed about.

Councillor Blackburn added: “It is a shame that ministers have missed a trick by refusing to state clearly that future operators will have to share a greater burden of the cost of decommissioning and waste management, rather than passing the bill to the Nuclear Liabilities Fund and ultimately the British taxpayer.”

July 11, 2022 - Posted by | safety, technology, UK

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