Hydrogen Goes Nuclear as U.K. Reactor Pivots Toward Renewables

Bloomberg Green

By Rachel Morison

August 1, 2021

Electricity transmission pylons stand in front of Sizewell A, right, and B, left, nuclear power stations in Sizewell, U.K.Photographer: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg


The $28 billion Sizewell C nuclear station is touted as an anchor for Britain reaching net-zero emissions, yet its reactors will compete with wind farms over the North Sea horizon. On gusty days, where will the plant’s excess power go? Toward making hydrogen.


Nuclear developers in Europe, North America and Russia are looking at the clean gas as an outlet for their low-carbon power to maximize revenue from one of the most expensive energy assets on the planet. They also want to capitalize on the $70 billion-plus pledged by governments to help develop the industry as a way to reach climate goals.


Electricite de France SA wants to make hydrogen at the proposed 20 billion-pound Sizewell C plant on the southeast coast, marking the first time these technologies would be combined on a commercial scale in Europe. With enough supply, clean hydrogen could meet a quarter of the world’s energy needs by 2050, and annual sales have potential to reach 630 billion euros ($744 billion).


“The amount of clean hydrogen that we’re going to need to really decarbonize our economic sectors is just immense,” said Elina Teplinsky, a Washington-based partner at Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP who focuses on nuclear projects and deals. “We need all of the hydrogen production sources that are available -- we’re going to need nuclear.”


Electricity grids want more renewable-power sources as nations commit to reducing greenhouse gas emissions to the point where their economies are carbon-neutral. Operators are preparing to run networks on 100% renewables at some times of the day, meaning nuclear, natural gas and coal sources won’t be needed. And that means less revenue for those plant owners.


On the days when wind, solar and hydropower produce enough, the low-carbon electricity generated by Sizewell C would be diverted to an electrolyzer producing clean hydrogen. The waste heat produced by the atomic plant also can be used to make the process 10% more efficient, according to EDF. If the company secures planning permission and the necessary financing, the facility likely will come online in the early 2030s.


“It’s not nuclear versus wind versus solar – we need to use everything and cooperate to make the most of the technologies,” Julia Pyke, Sizewell C’s financing director, said in an interview. “Ideally, you’d have the electrolyzer supplied both by nuclear and by wind.”


The U.K.’s long-awaited hydrogen strategy is expected to be technology neutral, leaving the door open for reactors. That blueprint could be released in coming days.


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The U.K. has set a target for 5 gigawatts of hydrogen production by 2030, envisioning its use in road transportation, home heating and ship propulsion. EDF currently runs 27 plants in the U.K. and France, and is building two more. Sizewell C would be its 30th.


“The nuclear industry does need to broaden its ambition and recognize the value of these opportunities,” said Kirsty Gogan, managing director of consultant LucidCatalyst in London and member of a government nuclear advisory board. “We have started to see this happening.”


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