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Towards More Sustainable Nuclear Energy with Non-Electric Applications: Opportunities and Challenges

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The Bilibino Nuclear Power Plant has been providing electricity, steam and hot water to a mining town in the Russian Arctic region since 1974. (Photo: Rosenergoatom)

There is considerable potential for increasing the use of excess heat from electricity generation by nuclear power plants to desalinate seawater, produce hydrogen for the heavy industry, decarbonize the transport sector, and supply heat to residential and commercial uses: Nuclear cogeneration can offer sustainable and economic solutions for meeting the increasing demand in heat energy markets. However, as experts at an IAEA meeting agreed last week, for these nuclear co-generation products to enter the commercial market on a large scale, several challenges and barriers have to be overcome.

Around 60 participants from 33 countries, representing both countries operating nuclear power plants, as well as nuclear newcomers, technology developers and potential customers, discussed the pros and cons of non-electric applications of nuclear energy during the 16th Dialogue Forum of the IAEA’s International Project for Innovative Nuclear Reactors and Fuel Cycles (INPRO), from 12-14 December 2018 in Vienna. Since 2010, these fora have focused on different aspects of developing sustainable nuclear energy systems and the related complex relationships among technology suppliers, customers and other stakeholders.

Participants presented ongoing cogeneration projects and plans or considerations in countries embarking on nuclear power. If such newcomer countries decide to include cogeneration in their nuclear energy planning, they should begin planning those applications right from the beginning, participants recommended.

“Nuclear cogeneration is very important, particularly if nuclear power is to expand much more broadly in energy markets to meet the need for clean and sustainable energy, while helping to mitigate climate change through avoidance of carbon emissions,” said Mikhail Chudakov, IAEA Deputy Director General and Head of the Department of Nuclear Energy.

Traditionally, the primary focus of nuclear power has been on electricity generation. But as early as 1956, the Calder Hall nuclear power plant in the UK provided both electricity and process heat to site facilities. There are examples in several other countries of district heating, industrial process heat and seawater desalination. Despite these examples, nuclear cogeneration systems never really took off, for various economic and regulatory reasons as well as for lack of public support. With changes in technology and the regulatory environment in many countries, the conditions for cogenerations have improved substantially.

Opportunities for Non-Electric Applications

Cogeneration also holds other benefits for the nuclear industry: it could increase the flexibility of electricity production by adjusting the plant’s output between electrical and heat products, as demand for electricity fluctuates, said the Co-Chair of the 16th Dialogue Forum, industry expert Juergen Kupitz from Germany.

Another opportunity the participants emphasized is seawater desalination by nuclear energy. “This could substantially increase the fresh water supply in many regions and thus contribute to development and increased standard of living,” Kupitz added. “Water, energy and a healthy environment are basic life support systems.”

Ramesh Sadhankar, from the Canadian Nuclear Laboratories, spoke of the broader market potential of cogeneration to the nuclear industry. Heat markets are larger than electricity markets but are often local in nature, being tied to specific industrial activities, he observed.

Challenges and Barriers

Following panel and break out group discussions, the participants agreed on several issues considered as challenges and barriers for nuclear cogeneration to enter commercial markets: economics and energy market conditions remain a primary challenge. The lack of political commitment and low public acceptance also can present significant challenges. In specific cases, technical and regulatory issues, and a requirement for an operating reference plant, can present other barriers.

The deployment of advanced technologies such as small modular reactors (SMRs) and high temperature reactors (HTRs) may not immediately accelerate the deployment of non-electric applications of nuclear power. Many countries, particularly nuclear newcomers, require ‘demonstrated technology’ and may not accept a ‘first of a kind’ technology for both electricity generation and nuclear cogeneration. Some participants pointed out that large scale demonstration plants would be important for accepting a given heat market technology. However, in many cases, a reactor supplier country may not be able to economically justify a large scale demonstration of a heat application on its own soil unless a suitable business case can be made. Adjustments in regulatory approaches are required to overcome this problem, participates said.

Some non-electric applications of nuclear energy may also require specific licencing, the development of new regulations and approval from national regulatory bodies. Nuclear power plants that want to use their excess heat for cogeneration may need different licences. Cogeneration also requires qualified human resources and specific expertise, and its lack constitutes a barrier to non-electric applications of nuclear power.

IAEA role

Co-Chair Xin Yan, from the Japan Atomic Energy Agency, summarized how to overcome the challenges ahead of non-electric applications of nuclear energy: “First, we need to learn from other conventional industries who have been successful in forming alliances,” he said. This is happening already on a smaller scale, as the Republic of Korea and Saudi Arabia have joined forces to develop an SMR for desalination and cogeneration in the Middle East,” he added.

“Second, the IAEA is the best international body to help guide Member States to develop non-electric applications and should play a larger role in increasing public awareness. And thirdly, nuclear newcomer countries should make use of available tools, such as those offered by the IAEA, to understand non-electric applications, to help them in their economic development and to understand the technical challenges.”

The INPRO Dialogue Forum on Opportunities and Issues in Non-Electric Applications of Nuclear Energy was held in Vienna on 12-14 December 2018. (Photo: IAEA)

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