X Close

My technology lesson for Boris

October 2, 2019 - 2:01pm

Boris Johnson referred in his conference speech to some world-leading British science and technology. And there is absolutely no doubt that we do, indeed, have some world-leading British science and technology.

But it’s worth looking a little more closely at the things he mentioned. His point was that Britain can do these amazing things, so why shouldn’t we be able to do Brexit? “I am fed up with being told that our country can’t do something,” he said.

“Thanks to British technology there is a place in Oxfordshire that could soon be the hottest place in the solar system: the Tokamak fusion reactor in Culham.”

This is sort of true. The Culham Centre for Fusion Energy, in Abingdon, is indeed home to a fusion reactor, the “Joint European Torus”, or JET. It’s made the town the centre for a major high-tech industry. But notice what the E in JET stands for. British nuclear research is heavily funded and organised by the European Atomic Energy Community, Euratom. Euratom is separate from the EU but in 2017 the government announced that it was leaving that, too.

It will profoundly affect how we get hold of nuclear equipment, how we get rid of nuclear waste, and – relevantly to Johnson’s speech – how much investment there is in research. The British fusion industry was, before Brexit, expecting about £440 million in contracts from ITER, the new larger fusion centre being built in Cadarache, France, to replace JET, due to open next year. It is far from clear whether that will go ahead; if we are not in Euratom we cannot bid for those contracts. When ITER opens, British fusion research will be – for all that the reactors are hotter than the sun – out in the cold.

(Incidentally, there is no sense in which Culham is “on the verge of creating commercially viable miniature fusion reactors for sale around the world”, as Johnson claims. That is purest bullshit.)

Similarly, Johnson is almost right when he says “we are building two space ports, one in Sutherland and one in Newquay; soon we will be sending missions to the heavens’ geostationary satellites.”

We won’t in fact be sending to geostationary satellites – you want a more equatorial launch site for that, whereas higher-latitude launch sites like Britain are more suited to polar or sun-synchronous satellites, useful for Earth monitoring and other roles – as it happens I’ve written about it recently.

The British space industry is, indeed, world-leading: we haven’t built a space-capable rocket since 1970 but we have been pioneers in small-satellite technology, and we hope to have launch capability, via private companies such as Skyrora, within the next few years – launching from British shores.

But, quite apart from the potential challenges of new customs arrangements, the government itself says that if there’s no deal, Britain will fall out of the Galileo and EU Global Navigation Satellite System geostationary satellite programmes – so British businesses will be unable to bid for work on those, or the EU Space Surveillance and Tracking Programme.

Using those two industries, fusion and space, as examples of how Britain’s technology industries can do brilliantly without Europe, is very strange, at least according (in my experience) to most of the people who actually work in those industries.

Tom Chivers is a science writer. His second book, How to Read Numbers, is out now.


Join the discussion

Join like minded readers that support our journalism by becoming a paid subscriber

To join the discussion in the comments, become a paid subscriber.

Join like minded readers that support our journalism, read unlimited articles and enjoy other subscriber-only benefits.

Notify of

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments