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A group of 25 Y12 and Y13 Marling and High School Physics students travelled to Abingdon, Oxfordshire on Thursday 9 March to visit the Culham Centre for Nuclear Research. The Culham Centre is home to the world’s largest nuclear fusion reactor (known as a Tokamak, which apparently is a Russian acronym for “a toroidal chamber with an axial magnetic field. So now you know). Nuclear fusion is the process by which the Sun (and other stars) transfer energy and ultimately allows life to exist on this planet.

We arrived slightly late (it always takes forever to get to Abingdon) but were met very graciously by Sarah, the Education Officer at the Centre. Sarah gave a 30 minute presentation about the work being done on nuclear fusion at Culham and their hopes for the long term provision of (almost) unlimited supplies of electrical energy through the process of fusion. Boaz Thanesh kept her on her toes with some timely questions – well done Boaz! 

The students learned about the fusion process, the difficulties of producing and maintaining the 100 million degree temperatures required to fuse hydrogen nuclei together and how a new, much larger Tokamak currently being built in southern France would be the pre-cursor to providing electrical energy to the National Grid via a fleet of nuclear fusion power stations possibly as early as 2050.

After the presentation we then divided into three groups each with a tour guide and were whisked off to the Tokamak area for a tour of the facility. The guides were extremely knowledgeable and students were able to ask questions (well done Boaz – and others!) about the work being done at Culham and the physics of nuclear fusion. The reactor itself was in shut-down mode for repairs and cleaning (the inside of the Tokamak has to be kept spotlessly clean) so we were able to go to within about 20m of the reactor and see part of the inner section of it.  Unlike a conventional nuclear FISSION reactor, a fusion reactor does not produce long term radioactive waste (another huge advantage of the process) so it is much easier to access the working parts.  

We visited the control centre for the Tokamak and learned about some of the key jobs that people have in making sure the reactor can be used safely – including ensuring that the country’s lights stay lit when the machine is switched on (LOTS of electrical energy is used to help raise the temperature inside the reactor!). Students also got to see operators practising using the robotic arm manipulator used to remove and replace components inside the reactor when it is not safe for a person to go inside.

Overall it was a very informative visit and hopefully will have raised awareness for students of the scientific work being done to ensure the world’s energy needs of the future can be met in a sustainable and environmentally sound way.

Andrew Moseley-Packer (Marling Physics department)

 
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