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CRP Success Story: Assessing Technical and Economic Aspects of Nuclear Hydrogen Production for Near-term Deployment

Success story

Nuclear power reactors are well suited to provide the energy needs for low carbon hydrogen production. They can generate large amounts of low carbon heat together with electricity to produce hydrogen, a unique feature of nuclear power among the various scalable clean energy sources. (Photo: Adobe Stock)

A recently concluded IAEA Coordinated Research Project (CRP) examining the use of nuclear power for hydrogen production has helped pave the way for its wider adoption. The project, which wrapped up earlier this year after commencing in April 2018, conducted in-depth analyses of nuclear hydrogen production processes, technologies and economic considerations to further examine the viability of large-scale hydrogen production using nuclear power.

The CRP produced several robust assessments on the suitability of various reactor types for hydrogen production, including feasibility studies incorporating country-specific factors, and examined the leading production methods, including low- and high-temperature electrolysis and thermochemical cycles such as the sulphur-iodine cycle. The results were used to update the IAEA’s Hydrogen Economic Evaluation Programme (HEEP), a tool used to assess the economics of large-scale hydrogen production using nuclear energy. At the recommendation of the chief scientific investigators participating in this CRP as well as the IAEA’s Standing Advisory Group on Nuclear Energy, the IAEA will release a roadmap for the commercial deployment of nuclear hydrogen production during 2024.

The use of hydrogen as a versatile energy carrier is gaining more attention worldwide owing to its potential to assist countries in achieving net zero emission targets. Hydrogen is a central component of electric vehicle fuel cells and is also used in industrial processes such as semiconductor manufacturing, among other applications. For now, fossil fuels power the production of about 95% of the hydrogen utilized today, with the consequence of significant carbon emissions and implications for energy security. Owing to their efficiency and ability to generate process heat, nuclear power reactors are well suited to produce hydrogen in line with the goal of decarbonizing all sectors in order to reach net zero by 2050.

Currently, there are several hydrogen production demonstration projects underway, with more planned. Research on advanced reactor technologies for hydrogen generation is ongoing in many countries, with several options under consideration: conventional low-temperature electrolysis, high-temperature steam electrolysis, thermochemical cycles as well as steam-methane reforming using nuclear heat. Low-temperature electrolysis involves passing an electric current through water and splitting water molecules into their base components – hydrogen and oxygen. Steam electrolysis works on the same principle but functions at a temperature of between 700°C and 950°C. However, thanks to heat recuperation, the heat input required by the manufacturers of the current commercially available high temperature electrolysers can be below 200oC. Thermochemical hydrogen production processes work by catalysing chemical reactions with certain compounds at high temperatures in order to split water molecules.  

The CRP ’Assessing Technical and Economic Aspects of Nuclear Hydrogen Production for Near-term Deployment’ facilitated research to address some of the key issues related to the potential upscaling of nuclear hydrogen production technologies, including techno-economic analyses of hydrogen production deployment as well as preliminary safety considerations based on the specific cases of participant IAEA member countries.

The CRP Objectives

The overall objective of the CRP was to assess the experience gained from research and development on nuclear hydrogen production and the potential for near-term deployment of nuclear hydrogen production.

The specific objectives were to:

  • Analyse the techno-economic aspects associated with upscaling of nuclear hydrogen plants;
  • Assess aspects relevant to the safety of nuclear cogeneration plants for hydrogen production based on the latest R&D achievements;
  • Understand the potential deployment and time scale of large-scale nuclear hydrogen production technologies for near-term deployment.

Impact and relevance

The outcome and results of this CRP are relevant for the planning and deployment of nuclear hydrogen production in IAEA Member States, a topic of growing international importance considering the global value of hydrogen in the fight against climate change.

Ana Ester Bohe, Senior Researcher in Argentina’s Comisión Nacional de Energía Atómica (CNEA) and one of the chief scientific investigators in the CRP, said: “The theoretical feasibility study on the nuclear-assisted gasification process applied to the Argentine Rio Turbio coal (which was conducted during this CRP) is very important for giving our country the technical basis that will be needed during the decision process with regard to nuclear hydrogen production through the gasification of domestic coal.”

Other key achievements of this CRP include:

  • Developed a techno-economic investigation of hydrogen production deployment, using electrolysis as the hydrogen production process, with solar and nuclear energy for power;
  • Evaluated nuclear hydrogen production using a thorium molten salt reactor coupled with a solid oxide electrolyser;
  • Assessed the use of small modular reactor (SMR) technologies for hydrogen production, compression and storage;
  • Assessed the integration of high-temperature reactors with various hydrogen production processes;
  • Assessed the integration of hybrid thermochemical cycles with various nuclear power reactors;
  • Developed integration methods for various hydrogen production schemes;
  • Updated the IAEA Hydrogen Economic Evaluation Program (HEEP) .

This CRP had significant academic and human resource development benefits, including the publication of 13 articles in peer-reviewed journals.  

Ten research contract and agreement holders from Algeria, Argentina, China, Greece, India, Japan, Russian Federation, Saudi Arabia, Türkiye and the United States of America participated in this CRP.  

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