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Nuclear High Temperature Heat Could Replace Fossil Fuels in Industry, Mitigate Climate Change

Stefano Monti, Head of the Nuclear Power Technology Development Section, speaks at the Nuclear High Temperature Heat for Industrial Processes side event. (Photo: S. Krikorian/IAEA)

An advanced technology that uses nuclear energy to produce high temperature heat for industry could be an important tool in cutting carbon dioxide emissions worldwide, said experts at an IAEA roundtable discussion today. The technology, which is expected to be deployable in coming years, could add to low carbon energy sources  for use for transportation and a number of industrial applications requiring high temperature heat.

Unlike typical reactors, high temperature reactors are particularly suitable to generate high temperature process heat in addition to electricity.  High temperature heat from advanced nuclear reactors may be able to have a direct role in climate change mitigation as an alternative energy source  for industrial processes. Experts from China, Poland, Japan and the United States discussed the potential of utilizing this new technology.

“Many Member States with an active programme on nuclear power believe that non-electric applications of nuclear energy are the path for nuclear energy to penetrate the transportation and heat markets,” said Mikhail Chudakov, Deputy Director General and Head of the Department of Nuclear Energy in his opening remarks.    

Yulong Wu, General Manager of Chinergy Co, detailed the construction of the first advanced High Temperature Gas-cooled Reactor, the HTR-PM. This innovative reactor utilizes nuclear fuel in the form of “pebbles”, spheres of uranium and plutonium, rather than the conventional rod design. Upon completion, scheduled for late 2017, this reactor could drastically reduce air pollution and CO2 emissions by replacing a large number of China’s coal plants for industrial applications.    

Józef Sobolewski, Director of Nuclear Energy at the Polish Ministry of Energy talked about his country’s progress in the deployment of an advanced High Temperature Gas-cooled Reactor (HTGR). The use of an HTGR could reduce CO2 emissions in Poland by 14-17 million tons per year.  Poland plans to use an HTGR to provide heat for large chemical plants, which currently require more than 5 million tons of natural gas/oil each year. “There is huge potential for nuclear high temperature heat for industrial applications in Poland as 100% of the heat market is dominated by fossil fuels,” said Sobolewski.

Grzegorz Wrochna, from Poland’s National Centre for Nuclear Research, discussed multilateral initiatives within Europe towards the development of HTGR.  This includes the PRIME initiative, a Polish partnership with the US, Europe, South Korea and Japan for the development of process heat applications using HTGRs.

Xing Yan of the Japanese Atomic Energy Agency discussed a variety of non-electric applications of nuclear power, including seawater desalination and hydrogen production, among others.  “Our work with the High-Temperature Test Reactor (HTTR) has demonstrated the feasibility of utilizing nuclear high-temperature heat for a variety of industrial applications,” he said.

Donald Hoffman, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of the Next Generation Nuclear Plant Alliance, talked about prospects for HTGR in the United States as well as potential challenges to the deployment of this new reactor type such as low fossil fuel prices. “Innovative solutions will be necessary to address global problems,” he said.

The IAEA will continue to evaluate the potential of non-electric applications of nuclear energy, including its techno-economic and socio-environmental aspects, Chudakov said.  “The Agency has implemented and will continue to implement various activities and tools to enable Member States to develop and deploy high temperature reactors.” It supports Member States in HTGR development with publications, tools, meetings, coordinated research activities and technical cooperation projects.