The role of nuclear energy in clean hydrogen production

Diablo canyon nuclear power plant

Image source: Nuclear Regulator Commission (NRC), United States

This article is part of the Nuclear-Hydrogen Digest: Nuclear Energy in the Hydrogen Economycompiled and edited by the NEA in partnership with the Nuclear Energy Institute, the Idaho National Laboratory and the Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation, and with the support of NICE Future and Hydrogen Initiative government and non-government members from Canada, Finland, France, Japan, Korea, the UAE, the UK, the US, and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). 

By 2035 the world will require millions of tons of clean hydrogen. But hydrogen can only fully contribute to deep decarbonisation if it is produced from low-carbon energy sources and if there is enough low-carbon electricity generation to produce it after meeting other priorities such as the direct electrification of the transport sector.

In the short term (by 2030), hydrogen can be produced through a process called “water electrolysis” which, as its name implies, requires inputs of water and electricity. Hydrogen from water electrolysis is only low-carbon if it uses electricity from wind, solar PV, hydropower or nuclear power.

In the medium term, new innovations are expected that will also allow hydrogen to be produced in different and more efficient ways, including from fossil fuels coupled with carbon capture, and advanced nuclear technologies such as next generation small modular reactors (SMRs). These advanced nuclear technologies will use significantly higher temperatures (>700°C) to produce hydrogen efficiently through thermo-chemical processes that will require inputs of water and heat.

For hydrogen to contribute to deep decarbonisation, it must be produced from either renewables or nuclear energy. Hydrogen produced from Steam Methane Reforming – even if coupled with carbon capture – may never contribute to deep decarbonisation because it requires methane as an input, which is 25-85 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas.

The latest NEA report The Role of Nuclear Power in the Hydrogen Economy: Cost and Competitiveness details the economics of hydrogen production and delivery from water electrolysis in the 2035 timeframe. It finds:

  • Nuclear is a competitive energy source to produce low-carbon hydrogen at large scale. In fact, amortised reactors in long term operation can unlock the cheapest production costs, less than USD 2 per kilogram. The cost of hydrogen from new nuclear reactors is similar to the cost of hydrogen from variable renewables (solar and wind) in most places around the world.
  • Nuclear can provide hydrogen and energy to industrial hubs at low costs. Nuclear steadiness and power density allows it to deliver a large-scale, unremitting flow of low-carbon hydrogen and heat. Nuclear creates opportunities to optimize hydrogen delivery infrastructure costs and to leverage co-location with otherwise hard-to-abate industrial activities.
  • Nuclear has low grid and system level costs. Meeting net zero decarbonisation goals, including increased hydrogen production, using only variable renewables would require unprecedented amounts of generation capacity. The NEA report shows that including nuclear in the generation mix reduces the total capacity requirements at the system’s level and optimises the grid-level cost of the global power system.

Hydrogen digest graph  
The path to net zero by 2050 requires immediate action and system level thinking

Low-carbon hydrogen still faces many challenges and requires research, development and at-scale demonstration using nuclear and other sources of clean power. Future energy systems will be more complex, relying on various sources of clean power and clean heat to meet growing and diverse needs across all sectors of the economy. System level thinking is needed to ensure that integrated and hybrid energy systems combine variable (e.g. solar and wind) and firm sources (e.g. hydro and nuclear) of energy to provide heat and power when and where it’s needed. System level thinking is also required to optimise the overall costs of the energy system.

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