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Use of Nuclear Energy to Produce Hydrogen Expected to Gain Ground

Dan Yurman's picture
Editor & Publisher, NeutronBytes, a blog about nuclear energy

Publisher of NeutronBytes, a blog about nuclear energy online since 2007.  Consultant and project manager for technology innovation processes and new product / program development for commercial...

  • Member since 2018
  • 1,599 items added with 1,248,508 views
  • Feb 28, 2021
  • Lucid Catalyst Report Says Nuclear Reactors, Especially SMRs, are Key to Developing a Hydrogen Economy
  • UK / Roadmap Says Nuclear Could Produce One-Third Of Clean Hydrogen Needs By 2050
  • Japan Invests in an Advanced Small Modular Reactor Intended to Produce Hydrogen
  • Chinese Fast Reactor Begins High-Power Operation
  • BN-800 Fast Reactor Completes First Refueling with Mixed Oxide Fuel (MOX); MBIR Research Reactor Set for Startup in 2028.
  • Japanese Utilities Revise MOX Utilization Plan

Lucid Catalyst Report –
Advanced Heat Sources are Key to Decarbonization

green h2According to the UK based consulting firm Lucid Catalyst, in its latest report says that it’s not too late to meet the Paris goals. That finding comes with a big caveat.

The firm says that this is possible only if we are prepared to make major investments in clean hydrogen production.

“There is simply no other way to make the numbers add up – this truly is the missing link we need to maintain a livable climate on this planet.”

According to the firm’s research, given the scale and urgency of the required clean transition combined with the growth of the global energy system, all zero-carbon hydrogen production options must be pursued as fast as possible.,

The report, Missing Link to a  Livable Climate, describes how to decarbonize “a substantial portion” of the global energy system, for which there is currently “no viable alternative”, and presents the six actions that are needed. (see summary below)

This report shows how existing industrial capabilities in the oil and gas sectors, combined with a new generation of advanced [small] modular reactors, can be re-deployed to fully and cost-competitively decarbonize aviation, shipping, cement, and other industries by mid-century.

To achieve this, the report says hydrogen-enabled fuels need to be produced, without emissions, at a price that is competitive with the fossil fuels they are replacing. It shows how advanced heat sources manufactured in high productivity environments, could deliver hydrogen on a large scale for USD1.10/kg, with further cost reductions at scale reaching USD0.90/kg by 2030.

These advanced heat sources can be built rapidly and at the required scale using a ‘gigafactory’ approach to modular construction and manufacturing, or in existing world-class shipyards.

The clean energy from these nuclear units, combined with “aggressive” renewables deployment, gives a much better chance of achieving the Paris goals of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius in the very limited time available

lucid chart 1

Report – Missing Link to a Livable Climate: How Hydrogen-Enabled Synthetic Fuels Can Help Deliver the Paris Goals

Note readers: The report is formatted to be read best in landscape mode

How Much Hydrogen is Needed at What Cost to Save the Planet?

To replace 100 million barrels of oil per day equivalent requires an investment of USD17 trillion, spent over 30 years from 2020 to 2050 or at an average rate of USD567 billion annually. (For comparison purposes, the total US defense budget in 2018 was USD618 billion) It follows that saving the planet won’t be cheap, but spending the money is better as an alternative to not having a livable planet.

The report notes that this level of spending is lower than the USD25 trillion investment otherwise required to maintain such fossil fuels flows in future decades, and contrasts with a USD70 trillion investment for a similarly sized renewables-to-fuels strategy.

“The potential of advanced heat sources to power the production of large-scale, very low-cost hydrogen and hydrogen-based fuels could transform global prospects for near-term decarbonization and prosperity.

While it sounds daunting to achieve the scale of production needed, the scalability and power density of advanced heat sources, including nuclear energy, are a major benefit. By moving to a manufacturing model with [small modular reactor] designs, it is possible to deliver hundreds of units in multiple markets around the world each year.”

How Can the Production of Hydrogen Can be Achieved?

The study shows how scalable, cost-effective hydrogen can be produced in the near term. To facilitate informed decision-making, it says that government and industry should immediately issue requests for information and seek quotes for shipyard manufactured plants and begin commissioning refinery-scale clean fuels production now.

Shipyards are “masters of cost, scale, and engineering integration” and their “tightly integrated design and manufacturing processes”, combined with onsite steel mills and long-term supply chain relationships, “offer exactly the needed heavy manufacturing components and equipment,” the report says.

Domestic and global zero-CO2 hydrogen market development along with existing and emerging global and domestic zero-carbon hydrogen policy initiatives should be “technology inclusive”, it says. They should be focused on key outcomes related to cost and scale of production, creation of zero-carbon hydrogen markets, and increased market share for zero-carbon fuels, it adds.

A key issue is  access to finance. “In the same way that investors must take a portfolio approach to investments in order to reduce exposure to risk, global efforts to limit climate change should be spread across a portfolio of technology options,” it says, adding that “consistent, technology-inclusive access to finance is critical to realizing this”.

Finally, noting that advanced heat source technology is not included by significant energy modelling programs active across the world today, the report recommends that policy makers consider adding this demonstrated technology option into modelling where it is currently absent.

UK / Roadmap Says Nuclear Could Produce One-Third Of Clean Hydrogen Needs By 2050

(NucNet) Nuclear reactors, including (small modular reactors) SMRs, could help meet ‘immense’ challenge of moving to net zero economy. Nuclear power could produce one-third of the UK’s clean hydrogen needs by 2050 with existing large-scale nuclear plants and a new generation of advanced reactors playing a role, according to a hydrogen roadmap published by the Nuclear Industry Council (NIC).

uses of hydrogenThe roadmap outlines how large-scale and small modular reactors can produce both the power and the heat needed to produce emissions-free hydrogen, or “green hydrogen”.

Existing large-scale reactors could produce green hydrogen at scale through electrolysis, as could the next generation of gigawatt-scale reactors. SMRs, the first unit of which could be deployed within the next 10 years, would unlock further possibilities for green hydrogen production near industrial clusters.

Advanced modular reactors under development offer one of the most promising innovations for green hydrogen production, since they will create temperatures high enough to split water without diverting production of electricity.

The ability to generate both power and hydrogen would cut costs, add flexibility, and allow co-location of reactors with industry to aid further decarbonization.

The roadmap estimates that 12-13 GW of nuclear reactors of all types could use electrolysis, steam electrolysis using waste heat and thermochemical water splitting to produce 75 TWh of green hydrogen by 2050.

“We will need to deploy every low-carbon technology at our disposal to produce clean hydrogen, especially “green hydrogen” from zero-carbon sources,” the roadmap says. “Nuclear, as a proven zero-carbon generator, should be a key part of the clean hydrogen mix.”

The NIC, a joint forum between the UK nuclear industry and government, sets priorities for government-industry collaboration to promote nuclear power in the UK. It says the UK depends on fossil fuels for more than three-quarters of its energy, but over the next 30 years, must transition to a net zero economy and the challenge is “immense.”

Japan Invests in an Advanced Small Modular Reactor Intended to Produce Hydrogen

In the trend toward decarbonized societies, hydrogen is gaining prominence as a new energy source that does not emit carbon dioxide (CO2). The Japan Atomic Energy Agency is developing a new type of reactor, called the “High Temperature Engineering Test Reactor” (HTTR), in the town of Oarai, Ibaraki Prefecture.

The high-temperature gas-cooled reactor (HTGR) is the next generation of nuclear power generation that can simultaneously produce unlimited amounts of hydrogen along with electricity.

Prior Coverage on this blog – Japan Gets Green Light to Restart R&D HTGR

One feature of HTGRs is that they use helium gas to produce a high temperature of 950 degrees, three times higher than that of conventional nuclear power. This high temperature can be used to drive a gas turbine to generate electricity, while producing hydrogen through the thermochemical decomposition of water, in a cyclical process involving iodine and sulfur dioxide.

japan htgrimg_data_01

Commercialization of this reaction, called the IS (iodine-sulfur) process, has been considered problematic, but the HTTR research team achieved 150 hours of continuous hydrogen production — the standard for long-time operation — two years ago.

The thermal output of the HTTR is 30,000 kilowatts. Since it is in the first stage of development, it is not equipped with a power generator, but it has all the basic functions of a high temperature gas-cooled reactor.

The HTTR is currently undergoing a safety review by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Compliance with new regulatory standards was confirmed in June 2020, and approval of the construction plan is underway. If construction work proceeds smoothly, operation is expected to resume in the summer of 2021.

Chinese Fast Reactor Begins High-Power Operation

(WNN)  The China Experimental Fast Reactor (CEFR) has been restarted and reconnected to the grid, marking its entry into its high-power operation phase. The sodium-cooled, pool-type fast reactor began a refueling and maintenance outage at the end of July last year, having completed commissioning tests for the power test phase of the reactor.

The China Institute of Atomic Energy (CIEA) said the CEFR had started its second operating cycle on January 19th this year and was connected to the grid in February. It said the high-power operation of CEFR is “an important way to master fast reactor technology and cultivate talents.”

The CEFR was constructed near Beijing with Russian assistance at CIEA, which undertakes fundamental research on nuclear science and technology. The reactor has a thermal capacity of 65 MW and can produce 20 MW in electrical power. The CEFR was built by Russia’s OKBM Afrikantov in collaboration with OKB Gidropress, NIKIET and the Kurchatov Institute.

China’s fast reactor development has implemented a three-step strategy, namely going from an experimental fast reactor, to a demonstration fast reactor, to a commercial fast reactor.

Update on the CFR-600

Based on the CEFR, a 600 MWe design, the CFR-600, was developed by the CIEA. Construction of a demonstration unit in Xiapu County, in China’s Fujian province began in December 2017. This unit will have a power output of 1500 MWt and 600 MWe.

The reactor will use mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel with 100 GWd/t burnup, and will feature two coolant loops producing steam at 480°C. Later fuel will be metal with burnup of 100-120 GWd/t. The reactor will have active and passive shutdown systems and passive decay heat removal. Construction of a second CFR-600 unit at the Xiapu site began in December 2020.

A commercial-scale unit – the CFR1000 – will have a capacity of 1000-1200 MWe. Subject to a decision to proceed, construction could start in December 2028, with operation from about 2034. That design will use metal fuel and 120-150 GWd/t burnup.

BN-800 Fast Reactor Completes First Refueling
with Mixed Oxide Fuel (MOX)

(WNN) Unit 4 of the Beloyarsk nuclear power plant, Russia’s BN-800 reactor, has been connected to the grid and resumed operations upon completion of scheduled maintenance. For the first time the refueling has been carried out with uranium-plutonium fuel only.

See prior coverage on this Blog – Update on Russia Fast Reactor Projects

Distinct from traditional nuclear fuel with enriched uranium, mixed oxide (MOX) fuel pellets are based on the mix of nuclear fuel cycle derivatives, such as oxide of plutonium bred in commercial reactors, and oxide of depleted uranium which comes from defluorination of depleted uranium hexafluoride (UF6), the tailings of uranium enrichment facilities.


The first batch of 18 MOX fuel assemblies was loaded into the BN-800 reactor core in January 2020, and now 160 assemblies more with fresh MOX fuel have been added. These replace the fuel assemblies with enriched uranium. The BN-800 core is now one-third filled with MOX fuel. From now on, only MOX fuel will be loaded into this reactor.

The development moves the Beloyarsk plant a step closer to Rosatom’s strategic goal to close the nuclear fuel cycle, Ivan Sidorov, director of Beloyarsk NPP, told World Nuclear News.

“This means that using MOX fuel will make it possible to involve the uranium that is not currently used in the fuel manufacturing and expand the resource feed-stock of the nuclear power industry. In addition, the BN-800 reactor can re-use spent nuclear fuel from other nuclear power plants and minimise radioactive waste by ‘afterburning’ long-lived isotopes from them. Taking into account the schedule, we will be able to switch to the core fully loaded with MOX fuel as early as 2022,” he said.

The fuel assemblies were manufactured at the Mining and Chemical Combine (MCC), in Zheleznogorsk, in the Krasnoyarsk region of Russia.

Russia’s MBIR Research Reactor Scheduled for Start Up in 2028

Rapid progress is being made towards commissioning of a multipurpose research nuclear reactor, Russia’s MBIR, under construction at the research Institute of Atomic Reactors (NIIAR in Dimitrovgrad, Ulyanovsk region). Commissioning is now scheduled for 2028,

Alexander Kurskiy, the head of the project office of advanced technologies Rosatom’s Science and Innovations, Division told NEI Magazine that it is planned to obtain a license to operate the reactor in 2027 and to carry out the physical start-up by the end of the same year. An energy start-up of MBIR is planned for 2028 with formal commissioning in the fourth quarter of that year.

The 150MWt multipurpose sodium-cooled fast neutron MBIR research nuclear reactor is expected to provide the nuclear industry with a research infrastructure for the coming 50 years. Its unique technical characteristics will make it possible to solve a wide range of research problems to support the development new competitive and safe NPPs, including fast reactors based on closing the nuclear fuel cycle.

MBIR will also be the base for a companion international research center, where international researchers will be able to carry out their experiments.

Japanese Utilities Revise MOX Utilization Plan

(WNN) A revised mixed oxide (MOX) fuel utilization plan, based on the latest operational plan for the Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant and the MOX Fuel Fabrication Plant, has been released by Japan’s Federation of Electric Power Companies (FEPC).

While only four Japanese reactors have so far been restarted using MOX fuel, FEPC envisages at least 12 units running on the fuel by FY2030. The rate of usage of the surplus plutonium to make MOX fuel will be relatively low until more reactors in Japan are restarted and qualified to use MOX fuel.

Until 1998, Japan sent the bulk of its used fuel to plants in France and the UK for reprocessing and MOX fabrication. However, since 1999 it has been storing used fuel in anticipation of the full-scale operation of its own reprocessing and MOX fabrication facilities.

Construction of a reprocessing plant at Rokkasho began in 1993 and was originally expected to be completed by 1997. The facility is based on the same technology as Orano’s La Hague plant in France. Once operational, the maximum reprocessing capacity of the Rokkasho plant will be 800 tonnes per year. Construction of a 130 tonne per year MOX plant, also at Rokkasho, began in late 2010.

Japan Nuclear Fuel Limited said it now expects to complete construction of the reprocessing plant in 2022 and that of the MOX fuel plant in 2024. The start of use of domestically-produced MOX fuel is expected to be after 2026, FEPC said.

# # #

Matt Karber's picture
Matt Karber on Mar 1, 2021

I thank Mr. Yurman for this article. I note that the article mentions the cost of replacing 100 million barrels per day of oil with hydrogen. It also mentions the cost of other options. What I don't see is the value of the benefits we will gain if we do. Such things can be monetized. We can calculate, for example, the cost to use equipment to replace trees' conversion of CO2 to O2. Thus, we can put a value on a service provided to us by a natural system. While we might wish the situation was otherwise, there are some people who will simply understand better if they see the explanation in dollars (or euro, yen, yuan, etc.). 

Dan Yurman's picture
Dan Yurman on Mar 1, 2021

If you treat CO2 as an environmental residual, same as other air pollutants, then the "benefit" of reducing these emissions is a reduction in the negative impacts they have on human health and environment.  Examples of the benefits, which are not measured solely in dollars, include longer life spans, better quality of life, fewer instances of disease caused by inhalation of toxic substances, etc.

Overall, it is clear from the scientific evidence, that the habitability of the planet is at risk if we as a species do not constrain our emissions of CO2 from energy generating processes. This is an issue which goes all the way back to Garrett Hardin's famous paradigm "The Tragedy of the Commons."

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Mar 1, 2021

When considering nuclear-produced hydrogen, do you think we'll more see hydrogen produced as a side product from nuclear when power supply is exceeding demand at a given moment, or will the industry go in the direction of building nuclear facilities dedicated to hydrogen production? 

Dan Yurman's picture
Dan Yurman on Mar 1, 2021

Most likely, developers of advanced small modular reactors will focus overall on process heat as a product. The end use of the heat will include electricity generation, hydrogen production, desalinization of sea water, and, in some cases, also district steam heating or process heat for industry.

See my report here for examples.

Canada’s SMR Developers Focus on Process Heat


Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Mar 1, 2021

Thanks for the follow up, Dan-- exciting to see all the positive outcomes that the same tech can lead towards

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Mar 1, 2021

Dan, the only purpose of promoting hydrogen as a fuel is to market methane - that's all. There is no basis in thermodynamics, physics, or environmental protection to use hydrogen as a fuel, even if it's made using clean nuclear energy to electrolyze water.

Will nuclear energy also be used to compress it to 10,000 lbs/in², and transport it to point-of-sale? Will PEM fuel cells be vastly more efficient than they are now (~50%)? Then, an argument could be made for using hydrogen as a fuel. In other words, "when pigs can fly."

Using nuclear energy to manufacture synthetic, liquid, ambient-pressure hydrocarbon fuels, using the Fischer-Tropsch process, would be a far cleaner and more practical alternative. Methanol, ethanol, or even synthetic gasoline could be manufactured from captured carbon and water, and used to power the 276 million extant internal-combustion vehicles in the U.S. (with some modifications).

Most efficient and environmentally-friendly would be using 100% nuclear electricity to power electric vehicles. In that scenario hydrogen plays no role, but it shouldn't anyway. Hydrogen is a dead end.

Dan Yurman's picture
Dan Yurman on Mar 1, 2021

The transition to hydrogen as a fuel is not to use it the way gasoline is used in an internal combustion engine.  Hydrogen has a much better use in fuel cells for railroad locomotives, ships, and static site on demand peak electrical generation for HVAC, power, and lighting for buildings. All of these uses exist today. No single fuel is going to be the basis for decarbonizing all industries. 

We are more likely to see all electric cars in wide use before we see a similar rate of adoption for cars fueled exclusively by hydrogen.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Mar 1, 2021

Dan, wherever it's used, the energy density of hydrogen gas is abysmal.

1,550 times less energy per liter than methanol, hydrogen must be compressed to 800 bar (or refrigerated to -252°C) to offer any kind of range for mobile applications.

"Hydrogen has a much better use in fuel cells for railroad locomotives, ships, and static site on demand peak electrical generation for HVAC, power, and lighting for buildings."

It's certainly not any cheaper, easier to store or transport, or more stable (less explosive) than methanol.

Dan Yurman's picture
Dan Yurman on Mar 2, 2021

Here are two media clips about railroads adopting hydrogen powered fuel cells. In point of fact, railroads like Burlington Northern have been using fuel cells to power yard switchers since 2012.  These examples include one from Canada - freight and one from the UK - passenger service.

Canadian Pacific launches hydrogen-powered locomotive project

CALGARY, AB, Dec. 18, 2020 /CNW/ - Canadian Pacific (TSX: CP) (NYSE: CP) announced today that it plans to develop North America's first line-haul hydrogen-powered locomotive. CP's Hydrogen Locomotive Program will retrofit a line-haul locomotive with hydrogen fuel cells and battery technology to drive the locomotive's electric traction motors. Once operational, CP will conduct rail service trials and qualification testing to evaluate the technology's readiness for the freight-rail sector.

BBC - Next stop, hydrogen-powered trains

The way hydrogen powers a train like the Hydroflex is quite simple. The fuel cell is made up of an anode, a cathode and an electrolyte membrane. The stored hydrogen passes through the anode, where it is split into electrons and protons. The electrons are then forced through a circuit that generates an electric charge that can be stored in lithium batteries or sent directly to the train’s electric motor. The leftover part of the hydrogen molecule reacts with oxygen at the cathode and becomes the waste product – water.


Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Mar 4, 2021

"The leftover part of the hydrogen molecule reacts with oxygen at the cathode and becomes the waste product – water."

First, your BBC writer, who speaks of the "leftover part of the hydrogen molecule", was outside smoking weed when he should have been in chemistry class. He knows not of what he speaks.

Second, this "only waste product is water" gimmick, invented by the natural gas industry, has been rehashed since the 1990s. It's getting old.

The only waste product produced when hydrogen is oxidized, of course, is water: H + H + O = H2O. But elemental hydrogen doesn't exist in nature - it must be separated from a molecule in which it's bound. There are many choices, but the most profitable target for a supply of hydrogen is methane (CH4).

As you've shown, hydrogen can also be produced by nuclear-powered electrolysis and emit no carbon. But unless we're certain it will be cheaper and more practical to use nuclear energy to manufacture hydrogen, investng in a multi-$billion hydrogen infrastructure amounts to an existential gamble: if the hydrogen we end up using in 2050 to power our "clean" trains, cars, and ships emits even more CO2 than using diesel fuel, it would be too late to turn back.

Dan Yurman's picture
Dan Yurman on Mar 5, 2021

Leaving aside the issue of the BBC's reporting, people are working to make hydrogen work in fuel cells and for the transportation sector. We'll know in a decade or two if they are right.

Rick Engebretson's picture
Rick Engebretson on Mar 2, 2021

More maybe this and maybe that logic. In the 1970s(?) some great Hydrogen energy science was done by J.O.M. Bockris. It is certain that nuclear generation infrastructure adjoining Hydrogen gas battery infrastructure is an appealing grid stabilizing opportunity. The windmill and solar panel advocates should welcome the nuclear power industry to join for creation of some actual energy plan.

I don't know the status of the Hydrogen energy industry today. In the 1970s I was paid to build and use instrumentation for "hydrogen(proton) exchange kinetics in proteins" over 100,000 psi. I believe fuel cells and recycling pure H20 are a very good battery storage option.

Dan Yurman's picture
Thank Dan for the Post!
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