Coupling reactors with non-electric applications

Why is this gap important?

While there are several alternatives to decarbonise the power sector (renewables, CCS, nuclear), there are fewer to decarbonise applications for which fuel switching (electrification) is not possible or limited.

While nuclear energy is recognised as a proven technology to provide low-carbon electricity as well as grid services, its potential as a source of low-carbon heat is often neglected, even though there is proven industrial experience (nuclear district heating in Switzerland for over three decades; process heat in CANDU plants in Canada; nuclear desalination in Kazakhstan in the 1980s). Hence, demonstrating the coupling of advanced reactors with non-electric applications can provide policy makers with alternatives to decarbonise transport (carbon-free production of hydrogen using nuclear heat and electricity), process heat applications and other energy-intensive industries such as desalination plants.

Coupling nuclear reactors with non-electric applications can also provide energy system storage – i.e. storing energy in the form of heat or as an energy vector such as hydrogen. This is the basic concept of hybrid energy systems.

Furthermore, demonstrating the possibility of multiple revenue streams (sales of electricity as well as heat or hydrogen) can improve the case for investing in nuclear technology, which will remain a capital-intensive technology.

Technology solutions

Current status: TRL 4. SMRs for both electric and non-electric applications are being developed and are becoming an attractive technological alternative to fossil fuel usage. However, until industrial-scale demonstrations are in place, it will be difficult to attract investors.

Challenges to commercialising non-electric applications of nuclear energy include:

  • The lack of a business model that clearly defines the roles and responsibilities of nuclear plant operators and of users of nuclear heat (steam) as well as revenue streams.
  • Inappropriate valuation of low-carbon steam compared with fossil-generated heat.
  • A lack of regulatory frameworks to oversee reactor operations (i.e. nuclear safety framework), operations of the industrial plants (which could be subject to chemical plant safety rules) and the coupling of nuclear and industrial plants.
  • A lack of awareness among policy makers of the potential benefits of nuclear cogeneration, including energy storage through conversion of nuclear energy into heat or hydrogen.

Non-electric applications for reactors Readiness level:

Colored bars represent the Technology Readiness Level (TRL) of each technology. Learn more about TRLs

What are the leading initiatives?

  • NICE Future initiative under the Clean Energy Ministerial, which (among other objectives) aims to discuss the concept of nuclear hybrid energy systems.
  • Nuclear hydrogen production by coupling an advanced reactor (Japan’s HTTR) with a hydrogen production plant using thermo-chemical cycles. Hydrogen production can also be achieved by coupling nuclear power production with high-temperature electrolysis.
  • Feasibility study between Korea and Saudi Arabia to couple a SMR (SMART reactor) with a desalination plant.
  • Project to couple a high-temperature reactor with an industrial process heat plant in Poland.
  • Project to bring electricity and heat to the city of Pevesk (Siberia) with a floating nuclear power plant (Akademik Lomonosov, under commissioning).

Recommended actions

Governments and international organisations

Next 5 years:

  • Recognise the benefits of coupling a nuclear reactor with a non-electric application (to store energy or produce desalinated water or hydrogen).
  • Promote international co‑operation to develop and demonstrate such a coupling.

Industry (nuclear and other)

Next 5-10 years:

  • Develop and demonstrate coupling of an advanced reactor with a non-electric application.

Regulators

Next 5-10 years:

  • Develop regulations to oversee the coupling of a nuclear reactor with a non-electric application (which could be a chemical plant).