A few weeks back Boris Johnson made reference to how the UK would shortly be building mini fusion reactors, courtesy of a generous grant of UK government funding (and thus brexit wasn’t going to be the disaster to UK science everyone is predicting). Of course, the actual nuclear scientists were quick to point out that this is about as accurate as pretty much any other Boris Johnson statement. Such as his claim there will be no border checks between Ireland and the UK post-brexit (which would result in the UK facing sanctions from the WTO, the EU, and the US, plus he’d be unable to prevent counterfeit goods or smugglers flooding the UK market and why would anyone give the UK a trade deal if you can smuggle stuff across the UK border via NI tariff free?).
In truth the UK leaving the EU also means the UK will be leaving Euroatom (The European agency that handles regulation and sale of nuclear materials). And given that the Tories plans for a UK regulator to replace them are in various states of chaos, the UK leaving the EU will probably mean an end to any significant nuclear research within the UK. While the UK will technically be still part of the ITER and JET fusion programs, its inevitable there will be some blowback as a result of brexit (e.g. scientists or their sick grandmother can’t get visas and walks off the job). About the only thing fortunate is that given the long time lines before we have a working commercial fusion reactor, its likely the UK will have rejoined the EU by the time this becomes a problem.
As with most Johnson lies the reality is a little different. Rolls Royce has a program to develop a mini nuclear power plant (fission based obviously, in the range of a few hundred megawatts), which the government has committed £18 million worth of matching funds too (i.e. the bulk of the funding will still have to come from Rolls Royce). To put this in prospective, funding for ITER is closer to 200 million euro’s per year (out of a total project cost estimated at 15 billion euro) with the EU contributing just under half of this (so Boris is promising the UK will spend about 25% the amount the EU spends on ITER every year).
By contrast Hinkley C (which is being built by the French) is likely to cost £22 billion, which works out as a cast burn rate of £5 million per day (so that £18 million won’t keep the Hinkley C site going for a week). And many Tories are nuclear supporters who are going to vote for this clown!
As for the prospects of mini-nukes rolling out across the country, polls show little public support with very few willing to live close to such a reactor. And as I’ve mentioned before, the downside of mini-nukes is their lower economies of scale, something even nuclear industry sources are quick to acknowledge, while talking up the benefits of them as a niche energy source. Given the fact that the two main obstacles to nuclear power right now are the high costs and the low level of public support, why in blue blazes would you pursue a form of nuclear that is more expensive and creates more flash points for public opposition. In fact it probably explains why RR have been in talks with the French about selling off some of their nuclear business.
The reality of nuclear energy is that it tends to favour large reactors, build by the larger nations, or transnational organisations, particularly when it comes to the regulation of such a safety critical industry. And this is even more true for nuclear fusion, given the enormous levels of research that will need to be applied to get the technology to work. Leaving the EU will inevitably diminish the UK’s ability to build, develop and service its nuclear industry. As in some many other areas the UK will be worse off out than in.