Threatened UK nuclear-fusion lab secures short-term extension

The European Union-funded Joint European Torus near Oxford can operate until the end of March, but its future after Brexit is uncertain.

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Empty chairs in the control room of the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy.

The control room at the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy near Oxford, UK, where the Joint European Torus is located.Credit: Alastair Philip Wiper/SPL

A UK-based nuclear-fusion facility that is largely funded by the European Union has secured a temporary extension to its contract that will allow it to run until 28 March — the day before Britain is scheduled to leave the European Union.

The Joint European Torus (JET) near Oxford, UK, is testing technologies for the world’s largest nuclear-fusion experiment, ITER, which is being built in southern France.

JET’s funding contract with the European Commission — through which it received €56 million ($64 million) a year from EU sources — ran out at the end of 2018, but the EU plans to extend funding for the facility to the end of 2020.

That scenario is possible under a Brexit deal agreed in November between the United Kingdom and the EU, intended to come into force after 29 March. The agreement would allow the United Kingdom to continue to participate in the EU’s Euratom nuclear research and training programme, and so remain part of ITER and continue to run JET.

But the deal has proved unpopular among UK members of parliament (MPs), increasing the likelihood that Britain could leave the EU without an agreement in place. Although it remains possible for the EU to keep funding JET in a ‘no deal’ Brexit, it is unclear whether this would happen.

British MPs are set to vote on the proposed deal on 15 January.

A spokesperson for JET said that the current extension is intended to give parties time to finalize an agreement with the European Commission to allow the facility to run until the end of 2020.

A new contract between JET and the commission could not be agreed until EU member-state representatives approved a plan to distribute EU funding for fusion research in 2019 and 2020, which they did on 14 December.

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