When most people think of nuclear power plants, the words “Chernobyl” and “Fukushima” may well spring to mind — along with thousands of people fleeing their radioactive homes.

Environmentalists might also consider the radioactive waste that has to be stored for centuries, while those in the power sector might think of the outright expense of recent newbuild nuclear plants, not to mention the blown budgets and years of delays.

Britain’s Hinkley Point C, for instance, is guaranteed a strike price of £92.50 ($111.23) per MWh for 35 years (at 2012 prices, but rising with inflation) — making it almost three times more expensive than the latest UK offshore wind prices. Olkiluoto 3 in Finland was finally completed at the end of 2021 — 12 years behind schedule and €8bn over budget.

And EDF’s under-construction Flamanville 3 is now 11 years behind schedule, with auditors expecting the final cost to be as much as €19.1bn — almost six times the original budget of €3.3bn.

Yet a new global coalition of more than 40 companies and organisations — the Nuclear Hydrogen Initiative (NHI) — has been launched to promote the production of clean H2 from atomic power.

Hydrogen: hype, hope and the hard truths around its role in the energy transition
Will hydrogen be the skeleton key to unlock a carbon-neutral world? Subscribe to Accelerate Hydrogen, powered by Recharge and Upstream, and get the market insight you need for this rapidly evolving global market.

Why would this be a good idea? Recharge asks NHI spokesperson Elina Teplinsky.

“Nuclear has several unique features, such as its high capacity factors and ability to produce not just electricity but also heat,” she says. “Note that the biggest component of the cost of hydrogen is the cost of electricity. Nuclear electricity plus heat — which is currently unused — can be paired with high-temperature steam electrolysis; those [solid oxide] electrolyzers require less electricity and can produce hydrogen in a more efficient way, which would bring down costs.

“The production costs for nuclear hydrogen — as with renewable hydrogen — are very dependent on the specific location. However, we at the Nuclear Hydrogen Initiative (NHI) believe that… once produced at scale [nuclear hydrogen] can be competitive with fossil-produced hydrogen.”

Nuclear costs

But the costs of nuclear power are sky high, aren’t they?

Teplinsky says that the “belief” that nuclear power projects always go wildly over budget is “based on a handful of examples of building first-of-a-kind nuclear reactor technologies in Western markets that had lost nuclear construction and project management expertise”.

“One of the most recent nuclear power plants to be built, the Barakah nuclear power plant in the UAE, a 4.8GW facility, was built on time and on budget. The same is true for entire fleets of nuclear reactors in Korea, Japan and China.

“There are many lessons to be learned from project and supply-chain management in those countries that can be applied to new projects in the West, which will also benefit from “nth-of-a-kind” cost savings as new reactors are constructed.

“Implementing lessons learned from our nuclear projects worldwide is a way to speed up construction in Western markets.”

Teplinsky adds that Hinkley Point C is an “outlier” in terms of the levelised cost of energy (LCOE), rather than the norm.

“Actual data from organisations such as the IEA [International Energy Agency] shows that nuclear energy… has [an] LCOE that is on average not only competitive with renewables, but is often lower.”

According to French financial adviser Lazard, the current LCOE of new nuclear power plants is in a range between $131 and $204 per MWh, but that existing fully depreciated nuclear facilities have a marginal cost of roughly $29/MWh.

By comparison, new utility-scale solar power costs $28-41/MWh, with new onshore wind at $26-50/MWh, and an average of $83/MWh for offshore wind.

Small modular reactors

She explains that the small modular reactors (SMR) being developed — ie, nuclear facilities of between 20MW and 300MW — “have lower capital costs, can be largely produced in a factory and thus have shorter construction times and lower interest rate exposure, [and therefore] have the potential to really scale at a level that will further reduce nuclear LCOE.”

Only one SMR is currently in operation today, according to information sent to Recharge by the NHI — a 70MW floating reactor in a remote part of Russia’s Far East. However, three more are under construction in China and Russia, with four others in the licensing process — in China, Russia and the US.

Teplinsky believes that nuclear hydrogen will be produced from both existing atomic facilities and newbuilds.

“Advanced reactors, which operate at higher temperatures and are smaller, modular, and can be located at industrial sites, can produce hydrogen in the near future.

“Many of these [SMR] designs are walk-away safe [ie, cannot cause a meltdown] allowing them to be sited close to populations and at existing industrial sites — for example, they could be used to replace or even repower existing coal plants.

“This is also a feature that makes these designs attractive as a future source of hydrogen production.”

Nuclear safety

It is easy for the nuclear industry to say that its power plants are safe, but it seems that virtually every proposal for a new facility meets with angry resistance from the local population.

“The issue is one of communication and education,” says Teplinsky. “It is a fact that communities that live closest to nuclear power plants are most supportive of nuclear — it is because those communities understand how nuclear energy works and that it is safe, reliable, secure and provides jobs.

“Traditionally, the nuclear industry has not done a great job of communicating with the public at large. However, this is changing as we’re facing a climate catastrophe and more people are starting to learn and understand more about nuclear as a key decarbonisation tool. As an example, in a recent poll, a majority Californians — a state that has traditionally not been supportive of nuclear — expressed support for nuclear energy and, in particular, in San Luis Obispo Country, the location of the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant, 74% support nuclear.”

But how can the industry ensure that nuclear power plants will be safe?

“Today’s nuclear power plants are safe,” she says. “The type of reactor that operated in Chernobyl is an old Soviet technology that has been phased out. And over the past several decades, the nuclear industry has developed benchmarks to ensure the highest standards of operation — well beyond any similarly situated industry.

“The advanced reactor industry is further advancing safety norms by designing reactors in a way that would make it technically impossible for them to melt down using, for example, advanced fuels. It’s a smart way to approach safety because it allows you to simplify the design, further reducing costs.”

What about nuclear waste and the decommissioning of nuclear plants when they come to the end of their working lives? Are these not expensive uncosted problems that leave taxpayers footing the bill for decades or even centuries to come?

“That’s not true,” replies Teplinsky, whose day job is a partner in the global law firm Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman, specializing in nuclear power and hydrogen. “Waste disposal — as well as decommissioning — costs are usually fully included in the operating costs of a nuclear power plant.

“And we know exactly how to safely store high-level waste — technically, we’re talking about used nuclear fuel – from the technology to its costs. Having those solutions fully understood and available is actually unique to the nuclear industry. Other clean energy sources, like wind and solar, are still figuring out what to do with waste. For nuclear, waste is not a technical issue, it’s a political one. And once again, it’s an issue of communication and engagement with communities.”

She adds: “It’s worth noting that the amount of spent fuel is very small. In fact, all of the spent fuel produced in the US since the 1950s could fit on a single football field.

“Despite this, we can even further reduce the amount of waste by using advanced fuels which have higher burn-up. Many countries also recycle their spent fuel, which turns this ‘waste’ into energy.”

H2 without the electrolysers

Teplinsky tells Recharge that electrolysis is not the only method of producing hydrogen from nuclear power.

“Research institutions and national laboratories have been working on pathways to produce hydrogen via thermochemical pathways,” she says. “We have several participants in NHI that are looking to do this. Thermochemical hydrogen production requires very-high-temperature reactors; there is a pilot project in Japan, for example, to do just this. This is a pathway with a relatively low TRL [technological readiness level]; however, given efforts across jurisdictions, we could see breakthroughs in the next couple of years.”