Private-public partnership will use nuclear energy for clean hydrogen production

Posted to Idaho National Laboratory in the Generation Professionals Group
image credit: Xcel Energy, Prairie Island Nuclear Generating Plant.
Laura Scheele's picture
Communications Director Versatile Test Reactor

Laura Scheele is the Communications Director for the Versatile Test Reactor. She has worked in the nuclear community for more than twenty years.

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  • Nov 9, 2020

More than $10 million in federal funding will help a Minnesota nuclear power plant make hydrogen in a way that could transform the nuclear energy industry.

Minneapolis-based Xcel Energy will work with Idaho National Laboratory to demonstrate a system that uses a nuclear plant’s steam and electricity to split water. The resulting hydrogen will initially be used at the power plant, but it could eventually be sold to other industries.

Many industrial sectors, including steel and ammonia production, use hydrogen to make their products. Hydrogen also is a form of clean energy that can power vehicles. The goal of these projects is to traverse technical barriers, so commercial nuclear power plants can make and sell commodities such as hydrogen in addition to electricity.

The U.S. Department of Energy announced the funding award on Oct. 8. The new project is the first of its kind in pairing a commercial electricity generator with high-temperature steam electrolysis (HTSE) technology. It builds on a project launched last year to demonstrate how hydrogen production facilities could be installed at operating nuclear power plants. The project showcases collaboration between DOE’s Nuclear Energy and Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy offices.

“This is a game-changer for both nuclear energy and carbon-free hydrogen production for numerous industries,” said Richard Boardman, national technical lead for the DOE Light Water Reactor Sustainability Program’s Flexible Plant Operations and Generation Pathway. “It offers a view of the energy structures of the future, which will integrate systems to maximize energy use, generator profitability and grid reliability all while minimizing carbon emissions.”

Today, industrial-grade hydrogen is produced by stripping it from natural gas molecules, emitting carbon monoxide in the process. Since nuclear power plants do not emit carbon or other air pollutants, hydrogen made by splitting water at nuclear plants can help lower the carbon footprint of industrial hydrogen customers. 

“Xcel Energy was the first major American utility to pursue a vision of 100% carbon-free electricity, and now we’ll be the first company to produce carbon-free hydrogen at a nuclear plant using this technology,” said Tim O’Connor, Xcel Energy chief generation officer. “This new process continues to demonstrate how our nuclear team has innovated to make our fleet more productive and valuable for our customers.”

The project will demonstrate HTSE using heat and electricity from one of Xcel Energy’s nuclear plants, likely the Prairie Island Nuclear Generating Station. Steam electrolysis can be a very efficient process in specific applications, and it relies on high temperature to split water and produce hydrogen.

HTSE technology is a natural fit at nuclear power plants, where high-quality steam and electricity are both accessible. Xcel Energy also has a large amount of wind in its energy generation portfolio, which offers an opportunity to demonstrate how a nuclear plant’s electricity could be used to make hydrogen when wind energy satisfies grid demand.

A recent analysis under DOE’s H2@Scale initiative, led by the Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Technologies Office, estimated that hydrogen produced by HTSE at a nuclear plant could be cost competitive in today’s market. The report was published by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

“Today, a number of nuclear power plants could produce cost-competitive hydrogen – and, with additional electrolyzer R&D and more installations, many more nuclear plants could in the future,” said Mark Ruth, a group manager with NREL’s Strategic Energy Analysis Center who is lead author of the report.

“Hydrogen is a versatile energy carrier that can help the decarbonization of major energy sectors,” said Amgad Elgowainy, a senior scientist and group leader with Argonne National Laboratory's Energy Systems Division, and a report author.

Commercial hydrogen production via low-temperature electrolysis will be demonstrated by a previously awarded project, which launched in September 2019. Led by Energy Harbor’s Davis-Besse Nuclear Plant near Toledo, Ohio, the two-year project will demonstrate a 1- to 3-MWe low-temperature electrolysis unit to produce commercial quantities of hydrogen. The third utility participating in the project, Arizona Public Service (APS), which operates the Palo Verde Generating Station, is also evaluating the integration of nuclear energy with hydrogen production.

“Holistic integration of the energy system will involve contributions from electrical, thermal and chemical networks, as well as greater utilization of energy storage at various scales,” said Boardman. “That’s how the commercial nuclear power industry can provide reliable, sustainable, low-emission and affordable energy and energy products to its customers.”

Idaho National Laboratory
Part of the U.S. Dept. of Energy’s complex of national laboratories, INL performs work in each of the strategic goal areas: energy, national security, science & environment. INL is the nation’s leading center for nuclear energy research & development.
Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Nov 9, 2020

The resulting hydrogen will initially be used at the power plant

What are the in-plant uses eyed for the hydrogen? And is it replacing hydrogen that was already being consumed but generated elsewhere, or will this be replacing other energy/fuel types? 


Laura Scheele's picture
Laura Scheele on Nov 10, 2020

Thanks for the question, Matt! I'll have to get back to you on the in-plant hydrogen uses. The hydrogen currently used is purchased off-site. 

The main purpose of the pilot program is to produce "clean" hydrogen that has a low-to-zero carbon footprint (since nuclear energy is used to produce it). The clean hydrogen would then be sold to third party customers. As the release notes, there is a growing market for clean hydrogen.

Many industrial sectors, including steel and ammonia production, ues hydrogen to make their products. Using clean hydrogen in those industrial processes will reduce the carbon footprint of the product, whether it be steel, ammonia or something else. 

The clean hydrogen would be substituted for hydrogen produced through steam methane reforming, which is the currently the most commonly used method.

Moreover, since the nuclear power plant can switch between electricity generation and hydrogen production, this allows power plants to switch modes depending on electricity demand / supply, in turn allowing nuclear energy to integrate intermittent renewable sources like solar and wind onto the grid. It also diversifies the commercial outputs for nuclear power plants.

I hope this is responsive. I will check on the first question.

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Nov 10, 2020

Very useful, thanks Laura! The point about being able to switch seamlessly between power generation and hydrogen production is a great one as well and surely goes a long way to enhance the profitability of any future plant built with these capabilities, not having to worry about interruptions to supply/demand patterns and instead always know there's something productive to be used. That's a great example of how hydrogen can be looked at as a form of energy storage-- keep producing the power now, store it in the form of energy-dense hydrogen, then use it where/when it's needed at a later time. 

Laura Scheele's picture
Laura Scheele on Nov 12, 2020

Hi Matt, an update on the in-plant uses for hydrogen:

Hydrogen is used in water-cooled nuclear reactors to control the cooling water chemistry. Hydrogen gas is often added to reduce the potential for localized and general corrosion. This is referred to as “hydrogen water chemistry,” and extensive literature is available on the topic. Currently hydrogen is brought to the nuclear plant site where it is stored in gas cylinders for these purposes. None of the plants in the program currently produce hydrogen.

Thanks again for the question!

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Nov 12, 2020

Ah interesting, I had assumed the hydrogen would be used as a source of energy / energy storage, but of course forgot the non-energy uses that hydrogen would be critical for. Thanks for the follow up, Laura!

Eric Smith's picture
Eric Smith on Nov 17, 2020

Another use for Hydrogen in most steam based power plants is as a bearing lubricant on the rotors used to produce the electricity. Typically it is stored onsite as a cryogenic liquid.

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Nov 17, 2020

Is hydrogen a top choice for this from its inherent characteristics, or is it often just a convenient and affordable use case since hydrogen can be produced on-site? 

Michael Keller's picture
Michael Keller on Nov 16, 2020

The production cost of hydrogen is highly dependent on the cost of energy used to break down water. Nuclear power is very expensive and that means hydrogen produced from a reactor will not be even remotely competitive. 

As far as using hydrogen at a nuclear plant, the gas is typically used for cooling the main generator. That need is inconsequential.

I do not recall using any hydrogen for steam generator chemistry control. 

Bottom line: Just yet another DOE boondoggle waste of taxpayer money.

Michael Keller's picture
Michael Keller on Nov 17, 2020

As I pointed out, hydrogen is used routinely with large generators but the amount needed is quite small. Easy to just use few hydrogen gas cylinders. The amount needed does not justify a large scale expensive electrolysis plant. Have seen a few small electrolysis units at really remote power plants well removed from industrial sources for the gas.

Leaking hydrogen is really unhelpful at a power plant. There have been several hydrogen fires on nuclear plant generators but more of an operational problem that does not directly affect the reactor. The plant does have to be shut down, however.

Laura Scheele's picture
Laura Scheele on Nov 23, 2020

@Michael Keller, Apologies for the delay in responding. I needed to check with Richard Boardman before proceeding. Here is his response:

As noted in the news release, the researchers and analysts who have studied the market potential for clean hydrogen produced with the energy provided by nuclear power plants have a different perspective. The report referenced and linked in the article looks specifically at the economic potential for clean hydrogen from nuclear energy and compares these costs for low temperature and high temperature [steam] electrolysis. 


The latter achieve higher thermodynamic efficiency by taking advantage of the heat that can be supplied to the electrolysis plant, as well as the electricity.  The up-front costs of nuclear power are expensive, but once the plant capital is paid down, the fixed and variable operating and maintenance costs (O&M) are competitive with natural gas. The fact is that many nuclear plants can produce electricity for around $30/MW-h, and some do so for less. 


The key is to couple the hydrogen plant to an existing nuclear power plant.  This is a possible way to increase the revenue of the nuclear plant, given the impact of renewable energy and the greater flexibility of natural gas turbines on the local marginal price of electricity in many regions.  Our studies show that the nuclear plants can produce hydrogen at prices that are competitive with traditional steam-methane reforming plants that are currently used to produce hydrogen. There is more justification as well, including the reduction in CO2 emissions and the ability of the nuclear/hydrogen hybrids to produce peak power using reversible electrolysis/fuel cell systems.


This project is using an existing nuclear power facility for electrolysis, and our existing reactors are power assets that can be easily retrofitted to use the heat (steam). In recent cooperative research agreements with utilities, the processes for extracting and delivering thermal energy is both technically and economically feasible.  The figure below shows that a nuclear plant can provide steam at costs that are less than a natural gas package boiler.


[This image is not uploading - below is a link to it]


Link to image


Relative to the comment regarding hydrogen use at nuclear plants, you are correct — only a minor amount of hydrogen is used for cooling the turbine/power generator and for adjusting the steam chemistry of boiling-water reactors.  The first demonstrations projects are small and will have the advantage of producing the hydrogen for these purposes.  However, anything above 100 kWe of electrolysis will require outside customers.  Customers that have expressed interest our companies that are rolling out fuel cell vehicle — buses, forklifts, and, in the not-too-distant future, heavy-duty trucks (see Cummins recent announcement as one more example).  In addition, large energy companies, including companies that own and operate refineries, ammonia plant, and steel production have expressed interest for the clean hydrogen that can be made on a very large scale.  With the reliability of nuclear energy, this supply of hydrogen to an industrial user is expected to grow.


The good news is that companies developing steam electrolysis technology are quickly raising technology readiness for commercial scale-up.  This includes U.S., Europe, and China.  Please contact Laura Scheele if you would like more information. As with all technologies that have merit, the role of DOE is to partner with these companies to demonstrate the art of the possible and to reduce technical and financial risks.    




Thank you, Laura

Michael Keller's picture
Michael Keller on Nov 23, 2020


Nuclear power plants cannot compete with natural gas combined-cycle power plants. When evaluating the financials, all the costs need to be considered, including profit on the investment and debt repayment. When those are considered, nuclear energy costs about twice that from combined-cycle plants. In passing, such plants (+1000 megawatts) are operated with a few dozen personnel, versus well over 500 for a similar output nuclear plant. That is a severe handicap.

Steam electrolysis units are commercially available. The combined-cycle plants can easily use the units, but the cost of hydrogen would not be competitive with hydrogen produced by industrial steam reforming of methane: that is the source of the vast majority of hydrogen used in this country. The nuclear units would produce hydrogen at much higher costs than that from combined-cycle plants.

As far a transportation use of hydrogen is concerned, diesel and gasoline fuels are vastly superior to compressed hydrogen gas because of their superior energy density.The fuel distribution network also already exists. Attempting to use liquefied hydrogen is technically difficult and no distribution system exists. Logistically, makes more sense to use electric vehicles, although the "all-in" costs exceed using fossil fuels like gasoline and diesel.

In closing, I am not necessarily opposed to nuclear energy, but the economics need to make sense in a competitive environment. Might want to checkout

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Nov 28, 2020

Much of the buzz around hydrogen strikes me as unconvincing, but there is some really interesting and convincing stuff here.  The underlying assumption of the hydrogen industry is that as we add more and more clean electricity to the grid, there will be more and more hours in the year with excess clean energy, which can be used to make hydrogen that uses no fossil fuel. 

The DOE program discussed in this article is underpinned by a fascinating point: that an electrolysis hydrogen plant, even if nominally solar or wind powered, could be put at any location with a strong grid connection. Of course nuclear plants have very strong grid connections, access to water, and a skilled workforce; better still, they have low cost steam available, and this allows use of more efficient electrolysis technology.  Steam electrolysis uses less electricity than water electrolysis, because boiling the water first contributes about 18% of the energy needed to electrolyze it.  And in a commodity market like energy, a 10 or 15% efficiency advantage is enough to decide the winner.  Note that the initial temperature of the provided steam does not matter much, since a heat exchanger allows the electrolyzer’s output gas to further warm the input steam.

With about 34 kWh of energy in each gallon-of-gasoline equivalent (more like 50 kWh with losses), only electricity selling for under 1.5 ¢ per kWh will result in hydrogen which is competitive with wholesale gasoline prices.  All energy sources have new-build LCOE that are higher than that, but wind, solar, hydro, and nuclear all have “marginal” prices lower than that, so that they can produce at that price for part of the time, as long as their average selling prices exceeds the LCOE.  Coal, fossil gas, and biomass can never make electricity for that price.  It is clear that hydrogen can’t grow sufficiently to lower costs without some sort of policy support; if that support helps with capital cost, but not with electricity cost, then growth will be constrained by availability of cheap electricity, but at least market forces will drive the system towards using only clean electricity.

The NREL report mentioned in the article talks about steam electrolysis already being cost competitive, but they are using a disappointing definition of competitive: extremely expensive, but selling well anyway in boutique markets because of lack of cheap non-fossil competition.  The report forecasts truly competitive pricing using the renewable cost estimates for 2050, and assumes economies of volume production for electrolysis equipment.

The NREL report tries to speculate about a future very large market for hydrogen as a cheap pipeline industrial gas.  I’m skeptical about that, but I think an achievable goal is to make enough hydrogen to supply our US ammonia/fertilizer market (about 0.36 quads/year = 12 GW, before losses) and say, half of our diesel fuel market (3.3 quads/year = 111 GW), which are both higher value energy products than pipeline gas.  Combined and including losses, that would take about 175 GW average to make the annual usage, which is a reasonable increase over our current 500 GW average electricity demand.

I should mention that ammonia (NH3), which is used directly as a nitrogen fertilizer and to make other fertilizers and chemicals, can also be used as a carbon-free fuel which has many advantages over hydrogen.  Ammonia is a liquid under moderate pressure (like propane), and has triple the energy density of 5000 psi hydrogen.  This makes it more practical to transport by truck or train, whereas hydrogen is very expensive to transport without a pipeline.  It can be used in certain fuel cells like hydrogen, but can also be burned at high efficiency in optimized internal combustion engines.  When refrigerated, it requires no pressurization, so it can be stored in warehouse sized tanks for seasonal storage.  It is much less explosive than hydrogen; it is toxic but is handled safely by farmers and could also be handled safely by professional truckers, construction workers, sailors, etc.

The ammonia angle is important, because the DOE should be driving more research into a type of steam electrolysis called PCC: proton conducting ceramic, which has gotten less attention than PEM and SOEC technology.  This type of cell can make hydrogen from water, but if also supplied with nitrogen, it can make ammonia (NH3) directly, which potentially makes the ammonia even more competitive with that from fossil fuel (which requires the hydrogen be converted to ammonia in a separate and somewhat costly Haber-Bosch process).

Hydrogen production from clean electricity can be a very helpful tool in the very difficult challenge of decarbonizing our energy system.  Electrolysis assisted by nuclear-produced steam can make clean hydrogen more affordable, and thus more viable.

Eric Smith's picture
Eric Smith on Nov 30, 2020

As for using nuclear power and steam for electrolysis, this should provide a viable solution to what to do with the power still available from numerous single reactor plants slated for closure because they can't compete in retail power markets against natural gas. Allowed to produce Hydrogen or Ammonia when their baseload power isn't viable for the retail market would result in a storable, battery like, inventory of energy which can then be used for peak load power or for value added fertilizer or for a fuel for existing combined cycle power plants which could use green methane produced from the green Hydrogen supplied by the nucs as well as CO2 currently being legally vented to the atmosphere by ammonia and other petrochemical facilities. Note that we already have a massive CH3 transmission and storage infrastructure.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Dec 12, 2020

Eric, there are no retail power markets in electricity. End consumers have no choice, and without it a market can't exist.

Nuclear plants are being replaced by natural gas plants for the simple reason utilities are now allowed to charge customers for their fuel - at a markup. The more fuel they burn, the more money they make. Because nuclear plants don't burn as much fuel as gas plants to make the same amount of energy, they're not uneconomical - they're too economical.

"Note that we already have a massive CH3 transmission and storage infrastructure."

CH3 is a chemical radical, not a compound. Maybe you're thinking of CH4 (methane), maybe of NH3 (ammonia). But like retail power markets, your "massive CH3 transmission and storage infrastructure" doesn't exist.

Eric Smith's picture
Eric Smith on Dec 14, 2020

You are correct about CH3 vs. CH4. My mistake. We do have a massive CH4 transmission and storage infrastructure in the US.

As for your definition of an ideal retail power market, it will come as a surprise to all of those people who, as retail consumers, rely on their public service commissions to define the appropriate rates they will pay for their power needs.

It will particularly mystify retail consumers in Texas who regularly switch suppliers who aggregate power from numerous wholesale power providers. Here in New Orleans, our "regulator" also happens to be our city council, all of whom are elected officials.

I gather you don't approve of public utilities as regulated monopolies with the ability to set power rates. That is your perrogative. But, we definitely do have "retail" markets as defined by our federal and state governments. We also have "wholesale" markets which is where most of the retiring nucular power companies have come to grief. Without the shield of regulated rates, the lower cost CCGTs have the advantage.

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