UK pledges to bankroll nuclear-fusion lab threatened by Brexit

Britain will pay £60 million to keep the Joint European Torus near Oxford running if negotiations to continue EU funding stall.

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Part of the Joint European Torus (JET) magnetic confinement plasma physics experiment inside the CCFE

The Joint European Torus near Oxford, UK, is testing fuel technologies for the ITER nuclear-fusion experiment in France.Credit: Alastair Philip Wiper/SPL

The UK government has said that it will step in to pay for a European Union-funded nuclear-fusion laboratory near Oxford after 29 March, if European cash cannot be agreed in the next ten days.

The Joint European Torus (JET) laboratory currently has only a short-term funding contract with the European Commission, which will run out on 28 March, the day before Britain is scheduled to leave the European Union. Until now, JET has received around 88% of its funding from EU sources, and the remainder from the United Kingdom. Negotiations with the EU to agree a new contract to fund the facility until the end of 2020 are ongoing, but have stalled in part because of uncertainty over Brexit.

In a statement to Parliament on 13 March, UK Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond promised to front up to £60 million (US$80 million) to run the JET in 2019–20, should no new agreement be reached in time.

The £60 million would cover the whole of the lab’s 2019–20 budget, says Ian Chapman, chief executive of the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy near Oxford, which hosts JET. Chapman says that the pledge is effectively an “insurance policy”: he is still optimistic that a contract with the EU will be signed in time, and that the commission will continue to fund JET in the long term. “It’s not the intention on either side for [JET] to become a UK facility. This is to make sure we’re covered and operations continue in every eventuality,” he says.

JET is working on testing technologies for the world’s largest nuclear-fusion experiment, ITER, which is being built in southern France. Next year, the lab plans to carry out pioneering experiments that would create superheated plasmas made up of a mixture of two hydrogen isotopes — deuterium and tritium — to mimic ITER’s planned fuel mix.

If the United Kingdom ends up temporarily as JET’s sole funder, it won’t change anything about the work or staff at the facility, says Chapman. For examples, scientists from EU nations due to work on experiments at the end of May will come regardless, he says.

JET frequently renews its contract with the European Commission, and an extension should have been smooth under a Brexit deal agreed between the United Kingdom and the EU in November. But the UK Parliament has repeatedly rejected the agreement, creating an uncertainty that has hampered JET negotiations.

Unless the deal is passed by Parliament, or Brexit is delayed, the United Kingdom will leave the EU without a deal. Although it would be possible for the bloc to keep funding JET in a ‘no deal’ Brexit, it is unclear whether this would happen. A UK government spokesperson said that the funding for JET would come from existing funds earmarked for science.

doi: 10.1038/d41586-019-00930-3
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