You can all but hear the sighs of relief from the many advocates of fusion energy.
In a decision that will avoid imposing substantial additional regulatory burden on developers, the UK Government has confirmed that there is no requirement for a material change in regulatory approach when it comes to existing, and currently contemplated, research and development facilities for fusion energy generation.
Having established that, although fusion technology continues to evolve, the overall hazard profile of fusion facilities is comparable with other facilities under the current regulators' control (such as large chemical plants).
The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and environmental regulators will retain responsibility for existing and planned fusion prototype energy facilities in the UK. In particular, fusion energy does not involve chain reactions, meltdown risk, or the most hazardous types of radioactive waste.
The government sought views from stakeholders in late 2021, after publishing a green paper on its proposals for fusion regulation entitled: 'Towards Fusion Energy'. The paper examined whether the existing regulatory framework for fusion was appropriate and fit for purpose for the next 20-30 years. It also looked at whether an alternative approach may be more appropriate.
In response to the consultation George Freeman, Minister for Science, Research, and Innovation stated that following a "careful review of the feedback received, the Government can now confirm that future fusion energy facilities will be regulated under the legal framework already in place for fusion".
In his statement, Freeman affirms the Government's intent to keep fusion energy apart from the Office for Nuclear Regulation, providing clarity to developers of prototype fusion facilities in the UK and facilitating the rapid commercialisation of the renewable energy technology.
However, the Government did stress that, whilst appropriate engagement between the regulators and fusion developers is necessary for the regulatory framework to be effective, it must also uphold clear separation between them. Core to this is that responsibility for managing the risk of deploying fusion facilities in the UK will lie with the developer, and not with the regulators.
Clarification in the regulatory treatment of fusion energy will be accomplished through the Energy Security Bill enacting an amendment to the Nuclear Installations Act (1965) to explicitly exclude fusion energy facilities from the regulatory and licencing requirements under that Act. Consequently, unlike fission reactors, fusion operators will not be required to obtain a nuclear site licence, and so fusion facilities will not have to be on designated nuclear sites regulated by the Office for Nuclear Regulation.
This decision provides certainty to investors in fusion technologies in the UK, and supports the Government's Fusion Strategy and wider objectives in respect of low carbon industries. Coming very soon after the world record-setting sustained fusion achievement at the Joint European Torus in Oxfordshire, it brings a sense of optimism to the nascent fusion market.
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