UK nuclear industry agrees hydrogen roadmap

23 February 2021

The UK Nuclear Industry Association (NIA) on 17 February announced that a Hydrogen Roadmap had been agreed by the Nuclear Industry Council (NIC). The NIC is co-chaired by the minister for Business, Energy and Clean Growth and the NIA chairman. It sets strategic priorities for government-industry collaboration to promote nuclear power in the UK.

The 12-page roadmap follows on from Forty by '50: The Nuclear Roadmap, which set outs the ambition for the industry to produce 40% of the UK’s clean power by 2050. The new roadmap says that nuclear, along with renewables, could play a key role in a green hydrogen future, and that nuclear power could produce a third of the UK’s clean hydrogen needs by 2050.

“Today, the UK depends on fossil fuels for more than three-quarters of its energy. Over the next 30 years, we must transition to a net zero economy. The challenge is immense,” the roadmap notes. “The Climate Change Committee has estimated that we need to generate four times as much clean power by 2050, as well as 225 TWh of low-carbon hydrogen to complete our decarbonisation.”

To achieve this, “we will need to deploy every low-carbon technology at our disposal to produce clean hydrogen, especially “green hydrogen” from zero-carbon sources. The study makes a distinction between green hydrogen, blue hydrogen and grey hydrogen. Blue hydrogen is produce by methane reforming but with carbon capture use and storage (CCUS), which stores or reuses up to 97% of the CO2 produced. Grey hydrogen, produced by methane reforming without CCUS, is the most common method today, but produces 10 kg of emissions for every 1 kg of hydrogen produced.

According to the roadmap, as technology develops there will be four ways in which nuclear can produce green hydrogen:

  • Cold water electrolysis where electricity from a power station is diverted from the grid to an electrolyser to split water into hydrogen and oxygen. This has been proven at a small-scale and is the cheapest currently available. It involves the cost of the electrolyser, the cost of storage, and the normal costs of producing the electricity.
  • Steam electrolysis – High-temperature (600-1000°C) steam electrolysis requires a third less energy than cold water electrolysis. Use of lower temperature heat can also increase electrolysis efficiency but to a lesser extent. Steam electrolysis is technology available today.
  • Thermochemical water splitting using heat between 600-900°C produced by an Advanced Modular Reactor (AMR) in the presence of chemical catalysts to split water into hydrogen and oxygen. AMRs could produce clean power and clean hydrogen simultaneously.
  • Reforming fossil fuels using waste heat from nuclear power to provide the high temperatures for the steam reforming process instead of fossil fuels, but as carbon dioxide is released, this would need CCUS.

Cost is the principal barrier to green hydrogen, rather than technical capability, the roadmap notes. Grey hydrogen is currently cheaper, particularly since its carbon emissions are not adequately priced. Calibrated incentives and investments can achieve the cost reductions necessary to make clean hydrogen competitive. To reduce costs, the roadmap recommends:

  • A grant and subsidy scheme to encourage R&D to help reduce the costs of electrolysers possibly as part of a broader scheme to offer capital grants to zero-carbon generators to install electrolysers.
  • A new funding model to reduce the cost of capital associated with nuclear projects, reducing the price of electricity they produce either through direct government financing or another financing model, such as a Regulated Asset Base (RAB).
  •  Government working with Ofgem to explore a new scheme to replace payments to zero-carbon generators for constraining generation gradually with support for hydrogen production.
  • An ambitious carbon pricing system that reflects the full externalities of emissions and the UK’s net zero target.
  • Removal of the anomaly whereby nuclear-produced hydrogen, unlike renewable-powered hydrogen, does not qualify for Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation (RTFO) support.
  • Nuclear-hydrogen production in various forms to be eligible for inclusion in the recently announced Net Zero Hydrogen Production fund.
  • Setting out an AMR development timeline, including demonstration of hydrogen production technology, involving five-year R&D funding settlements to provide stability.

The roadmap listed a number of strategic parameters:

  • To help facilitate nuclear-hydrogen solutions and other clean hydrogen solutions hydrogen created from nuclear power should be classified as green; green hydrogen produced directly from zero-carbon generators should be the preferred option where possible; transition from grey hydrogen should occur as practical.
  • The government should include direct nuclear industry representation on the Hydrogen Advisory Council to ensure that green hydrogen from nuclear is incorporated into the overall vision of a hydrogen economy.
  • A target to produce 75 TWh of hydrogen would drive ambition and innovation in the industry.
  • A definitive analysis of systemic infrastructure challenges would be extremely useful to determine the maximum possible extent of electrification, and the area in which hydrogen should be used instead. This would include grants for the study and development of solutions to improve hydrogen storage, including the potential to use depleted uranium metal to store hydrogen at high density.
  • Investment incentives for nuclear-hydrogen and other green-hydrogen should be adopted to drive innovation and reduce costs.

Tom Greatrex, NIA chief executive, said: "Nuclear power should be right at the heart of green hydrogen production, alongside renewable technology. Nuclear reactors offer the innovative solutions we need to decarbonise sectors beyond electricity as part of a robust net-zero mix, starting today and going into the future. We are pleased the government has recognised that potential, and look forward to working with them and other partners to create a strong framework for green hydrogen production."

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