Net-Zero Needs a Clean Hydrogen Catalyst: The Case for Nuclear Hydrogen

Posted to OurEnergyPolicy in the Clean Power Professionals Group
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Liza Roberts's picture
Program Associate, OurEnergyPolicy

Liza is the Program Associate with OurEnergyPolicy, where she works to manage the OurEnergyLibrary and coordinate regular webinars and live events. Prior to joining OEP, Liza worked with the...

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  • Oct 18, 2022

Authors: Carlos Leipner, Director of Global Nuclear Strategy, Clean Air Task Force and Elina Teplinsky, Partner, Pillsbury Law

View on: OurEnergyPolicy's Energy Insights Forum 

Once again, the Atlantic hurricane season has demonstrated the impacts of climate change. Hurricane Ian made landfall in Florida as a category 4 storm in late September. It rapidly intensified to a “500-year flood event,” per Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, leveling communities, leaving millions without power, killing an untold number of people, and likely leaving behind billions of dollars in property damage. This follows a year of droughts, wildfires, and unrelenting heat. Clearly, the climate crisis is here.

But we have answers to that crisis if we are willing to use them. 

Governments at all levels are already working towards becoming “net zero,” a goal to eliminate carbon emissions and incentivize the development and use of clean energy. One key solution to this energy transition is the use of hydrogen, in particular as a way to decarbonize hard-to-abate sectors such as aviation, marine shipping, steel and cement production, and industrial heating. But hydrogen is difficult to obtain at a large scale using only renewable energy sources like wind and solar. Nonetheless, there is a perception that only renewables can be used to produce hydrogen in a perfect net-zero economy.  

This drive for perfection is the enemy of the good. The International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates that 530 Mt of low-carbon hydrogen will be needed by 2050 to support a net-zero economy, but a key challenge is ensuring “sufficient electricity generation capacity.” Every zero-carbon method of producing electricity will be needed to generate enough carbon-free hydrogen to reach the necessary levels, including nuclear energy.

Nuclear energy is large-scale, high capacity, high heat, and zero carbon – all of the criteria needed to support large-scale hydrogen production in a net-zero economy. For example, nuclear power plants’ average capacity factors are above 92% (that is, they produce power greater than 92% of the time). This is higher than the capacity factors of any other type of power plant and it makes nuclear energy uniquely reliable for industrial uses like generating hydrogen. Nuclear power plants also operate at very high temperatures, increasing the efficiency of hydrogen generation through electrolysis. Advanced reactors could further improve the efficiency of electrolysis while providing flexibility in siting and distribution. 

Hydrogen produced using nuclear energy, also known as nuclear hydrogen, could make net zero goals a reality, and it deserves our support. That is why we created the Nuclear Hydrogen Initiative (NHI): a coalition of private and public stakeholders advancing policy solutions, addressing technical barriers, catalyzing commercial partnerships, and engaging the financial community to support the contribution of nuclear energy in scaling clean hydrogen production. To achieve net zero we need every solution, not just perfect solutions.

We are pleased that governments are recognizing this need, although more can be done. For example, the United States Department of Energy (DOE) is seeking applications for projects in “Nuclear Coupled Hydrogen Production and Use” in an effort to support the development of nuclear plant thermal integration required for high-temperature hydrogen production or hydrogen-coupled end uses for nuclear energy. The DOE has also recently announced billions of dollars in funding for clean hydrogen hubs, at least one of which will be based on nuclear energy. In addition to developments in the United States, the United Kingdom is seeking to generate 10 GW of hydrogen by 2030 and has included nuclear in its national hydrogen strategy. The Dutch government has announced plans to build two new nuclear reactors for hydrogen production. Other countries are also pursuing hydrogen production using nuclear power.  

There is much to be done to achieve net zero and eliminate carbon from our economy; however, recognizing nuclear energy as a valid and necessary means to produce hydrogen is a start. 

OurEnergyPolicy is a 501(c)(3) nonpartisan organization dedicated to advancing and facilitating substantive, responsible dialogue on energy policy issues and providing this discourse as a resource for the public, policymakers, and the media.
Mark Silverstone's picture
Mark Silverstone on Oct 19, 2022

“…nuclear power plants’ average capacity factors are above 92% (that is, they produce power greater than 92% of the time).”

In the interest of full disclosure, you may want to inform readers that this figure is for US nuclear generators. Data for the rest of the world are a bit scarce. But we know that France’s reactor fleet is at about 50%; India’s is under 60%. 

Regarding the impact of hurricane Ian, the key learning may be Babcock Ranch, which produces far more electricity than it needs, and seemed to take the hurricane in stride. Perhaps what we need is more of that for generating hydrogen, a far cheaper and faster alternative to build, operate and maintain.

Ross Horgan's picture
Ross Horgan on Oct 24, 2022

For a Canadian perspective you can read this September 2021 Nuclear Intelligence Report on why hydrogen needs nuclear.
In April 2022 Bruce Power signed a Memorandum of Understanding to collaborate on a feasibility study to determine opportunities for nuclear hydrogen production. The project will be conducted in partnership with the Hydrogen Business Council and is expected to be completed in early 2023.

Mark Silverstone's picture
Mark Silverstone on Oct 24, 2022

Sounds like a search for a purpose for SMRs.  I imagine there is one. But wind and solar can be used to generate hydrogen now, cost effectively. SMRs may do so in 8 years, minimum.

Michael Keller's picture
Michael Keller on Oct 24, 2022

I tend to agree with Mark. Setting aside the actual need for hydrogen, the cost of production from conventional nuclear plants is exorbitant; not even close to being competitive. Most, if not all, SMR’s likely suffer from the same defect.

Conventional nuclear plants are not particularly efficient while possessing high costs caused by the high cost to build the units. Relative to say natural gas plants, the operational costs are exceptionally high. However fuel costs are low. Roll these costs up and hydrogen production from a nuclear plant is expensive and not competitive.

Relative to the DOE, they are completely decoupled from economic reality and merrily spend taxpayer money on efforts that further growing the DOE empire. Competitiveness is not a consideration.

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