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Could hydrogen transform the future of nuclear?

In the age of clean energy transitions and climate-neutrality objectives, hydrogen is gaining increasing attention in Europe and globally as a zero-carbon energy carrier that can fuel the future clean energy system.

Particularly high demand on clean hydrogen is expected from the heavy-duty transport and large vehicle fleet, railways, shipping, aviation and building heating sectors. In other words, if successfully established and upscaled, clean hydrogen could replace oil and gas. The World Nuclear Association estimates that the energy demand for such hydrogen could exceed that for electricity production existing today. 

While interest in hydrogen is growing, this fuel is not found in free form in nature. To produce hydrogen, it is necessary to separate it from water or methane molecules which is typically achieved by emissions-intensive steam reforming of natural gas or coal gasification.

Notably, 95 per cent of the hydrogen produced and consumed worldwide is derived from fossil fuels and is primarily linked to the chemical and refining industries. The International Energy Agency (IEA) reports that in 2018 demand for hydrogen was about 74 million tonnes (Mt) of which 38.2 Mt was used in oil refining and 31.5 Mt in the production of ammonia, a sort of agricultural fertiliser.

Hydrogen from nuclear and its viability

Despite its pollution track record, however, decoupling of hydrogen from carbon emissions is possible. This can be realised via electrolysis, a process that involves the use of electricity in hydrogen production from renewable sources or nuclear reactors.

According to the World Nuclear Association, when operating at very high capacity, nuclear energy is well fit for the generation of zero-carbon hydrogen. With electrolysis, the efficiency of the process can go up from about 25 per cent today to 45 per cent with high-temperature electrolysis of steam and to even over 50 per cent with direct thermochemical production.

However, in spite of the strong potential, the technology is still a costly undertaking, heavily influenced by a combination of technical and economic factors.

Considering major CAPEX (Capital Expenditure) figures required to launch operations, some experts and executives in the energy sector like Bartosz Kwiatkowski who is now the Director of Polish Liquid Gas Association are somewhat hesitant about the production of nuclear or otherwise called, pink hydrogen, at least, in Poland.

“I am not sure if powering electrolyser operating at 70 per cent efficiency is an optimal way to use stable source of power like a nuclear plant. In that sense, I am much more convinced by the concept of green rather than pink [nuclear] hydrogen”, he tells CEENERGYNEWS.

The economic viability of nuclear hydrogen seems to remain contested until the substantial cost reduction of electrolysis is achieved.

Petr Mervart, Plenipotentiary of the Minister of Industry and Trade for Hydrogen Technologies of the Czech Republic underlines that the biggest challenge facing nuclear hydrogen in Czechia at present is the economic one.

“In the present set-up, all the energy from nuclear power plants will be immediately consumed as low-carbon energy. […] With the present prices of electricity, we are not able to generate hydrogen with a price of around 4 euros/kilogram which is needed for the replacement of diesel in mobility.”

Nuclear hydrogen in the EU

Nuclear hydrogen technology is in its infancy. There are demonstration projects running in the US, UK, Canada, Russia and China but the European Union is absent from the list. The exception, however, could be France.

Earlier in Autumn 2021, the country made headlines in the media as President Emmanuel Macron unveiled France 2030, an industrial revival investment plan worth 30 billion euros which marked nuclear-powered electrolysis and hydrogen production as the central asset of France, the country which produces 70 per cent of its electricity from nuclear.

In its broader sense, hydrogen as such is part of the European Union’s decarbonisation plan. In 2020, the European Commission adopted a long-awaited hydrogen strategy to bolster the hydrogen economy and with it, support the European Green Deal objectives. By the end of 2021, the Commission also endorsed a set of legislative proposals that aim at decarbonising the EU gas market through the facilitation of the uptake of renewable and low carbon gases, including hydrogen.

According to the Commission, by 2030, the EU should have 40 gigawatts (GW) of electrolyser capacity and a competitive hydrogen market with dedicated infrastructure. As Europe’s hydrogen roadmap suggests, the share of hydrogen in the energy mix of the EU should reach 14 per cent by 2050.

As for nuclear hydrogen, in light of the Commission’s labelling nuclear as sustainable, the likelihood of attracting investments for further development of this technology will only get higher.

Czechia for instance is taking notes. The Czech Hydrogen Strategy which was approved by the government of the Czech Republic in 2021 includes the production of hydrogen by nuclear power, even if the discussions about the development of the technology are still at the very beginning.

Petr Mervart suggests that since Czechia does not have off-shore wind farms and as many sunshine hours as in southern Europe, the country needs to explore other sources of electricity for hydrogen production. Nuclear to him is an obvious option.

“Electricity produced in nuclear power plants is low-carbon one and the amount of its production is fully controlled, it does not dependent on unpredictable weather”, he tells us and adds that the future of hydrogen production from nuclear power depends on the build-up of new nuclear resources.

Czechia is now exploring the future possibilities of deploying Gen 4 reactors and small modular reactors in its energy system. According to Mr Mervart, these technologies could be optimized for hydrogen production but “the outlook of such technologies will be relevant in the late ’30s.”

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