The role of nuclear in achieving net zero

2 November 2021

Boris Schucht discusses how nuclear can support the energy transition and explains what Urenco is doing to help

Climate change is clearly one of the most challenging societal issues of our generation. But so far in the public debate and in the media the focus is very much on the decarbonisation of the electricity sector even though there are some impressive results already. In the UK for example, more than 40% of electricity generated is from renewables, energy from waste and biofuels.

However, compared to total primary energy consumption, this figure in the UK drops down to 14% in 2019. In the EU the level is very similar – roughly 2700TWh out of a primary energy consumption of 16,000TWh is covered by renewables, which is a share of 17%. And we should not forget that half of this is waste and biomass based where the potential for further growth is very limited. Nuclear’s share in the EU is in the same range at 14%.

These figures demonstrate the scale of the total problem and we have less than 30 years to reduce carbon emissions to net zero. Nor can we replace fossil fuels just with renewables. To do this, we would need about 10 times as much renewable energy than we have built in the last 20 years. This big picture shows well that we will need all available CO2 free alternatives to achieve net zero – renewables and nuclear.

What will happen in the energy transition?

We will see the electrification of sectors which traditionally have been fossil-fuel based, such as electric vehicles. However, not all sectors can be electrified, such as haulage, steel and cement production and the chemical industries.

Besides that, due to intermittency issues, electricity systems with a significant renewables share will require seasonal storage solutions, which are currently not available everywhere and at the necessary scale. 

These two drivers lead to the conclusion that to achieve a high ratio of decarbonisation within the electricity sector, and to decarbonise other sectors, we will need a hydrogen economy with hydrogen used directly or refined into synthetic fuels. An example of how this is being increasingly recognised, is the UK Government’s recently published Hydrogen Strategy, which forecasts that 250-460TWh of hydrogen could be needed in 2050, making up 20-35% of UK final energy consumption.

One of our recent initiatives has been to initiate a new study by Aurora Energy Research to investigate the benefits of the deployment of both renewables and nuclear in hydrogen production to support the energy transition and to meet the UK climate targets. The report, called “Decarbonising Hydrogen in a Net Zero Economy”, has been supported by the IAEA, EdF and Lucid Catalyst and it is available here on Urenco’s website.

How renewables and nuclear hydrogen can facilitate decarbonisation

Aurora’s models show that deploying renewables and nuclear for power and hydrogen production can facilitate rapid decarbonisation and reduced reliance on fossil fuels. All scenarios demonstrate that both renewables and nuclear together are able to provide the hydrogen volumes needed for net zero in 2050. On the important and often contentious point of cost, the study shows there is an important role for current and advanced nuclear power plants to keep energy affordable and reliable. Combining hydrogen and nuclear leads to competitive costs and using heat and electricity together from a nuclear power plant for hydrogen production provides a clear cost advantage. This is possible on ongoing or currently planned projects like Sizewell C. Long term, moving in the direction of high temperature reactors as a next generation of reactor design, could possibly compete with so called “blue hydrogen” and negate the need for investment in carbon capture and storage solutions for natural gas. To be more precise, the study shows that systems deploying large volumes of renewables and nuclear could reduce the net present value of total system spend by 6-9% (£40-60bn) to 2050. In addition, in the core scenarios modelled, cumulative greenhouse gas emissions to 2050 can be reduced by 80MtCO2e and gas usage in power and hydrogen by 8kTWht.

Of course the value chain for hydrogen needs to be built up and one area where we are currently active - through NPROXX, a subsidiary of our joint venture ETC – is in the production of hydrogen pressure vessels. NPROXX’s products are in operational use and demand is increasing quickly. For example filling stations in several areas are using a storage system to refuel buses with hydrogen. They are fully fuelled within ten minutes and have a range of 350 kilometres while generating only one emission: water! 

We are also contributing to the energy transition through the development of advanced fuels for future reactor designs. And, to be credible in the net zero debate, Urenco is strongly committed to reducing our own carbon emissions. We have joined the Climate Pledge (partner organisation of the UN’s Race to Zero Campaign) and have undertaken to achieve net zero carbon emissions in advance of 2040. This is 10 years ahead of the UK’s net zero by 2050 target.

In conclusion, nuclear power has an important role alongside renewables in the clean energy transition through supporting reliable, low carbon electricity generation and the production of hydrogen. It becomes more and more clear that all low carbon technology solutions will be required to meet our climate goals, and nuclear’s specific challenge is to achieve serial cost reduction for new build power plants and the whole value chain, including the fuel cycle. Also, the industry needs to focus on developing high temperature reactors as an option for the next generation of reactors, which can produce heat and electricity for hydrogen and can reach a new level of inherent nuclear safety.

We will continue to support societies and policy makers in this critical work, paving the way for the energy industry to deliver on net zero.

About the author 

Boris Schucht is chief executive officer, Urenco

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