A high-ranking official of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government has ruled out nuclear power as a source to produce hydrogen via electrolysis, squaring Germany off against its closest EU ally, France, which considers to include atomic power as part of its own national hydrogen strategy.

“Nuclear isn’t an option for our energy system, be it the production of electricity for our electricity demand, [or] for the production of hydrogen,” Andreas Feicht, secretary of state in Germany’s economics and energy ministry, said at a virtual conference on hydrogen organized by his ministry.

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Feicht acknowledged, however, that the question what role nuclear will play for the European energy market will be discussed during Germany’s current EU presidency.

'Green' or 'carbon-free' hydrogen?

Germany by the end of 2022 will phase out its last atomic power stations, and in its €9bn ($10.6bn) national hydrogen strategy has laid down that it strives to ramp up a ‘green hydrogen’ economy mostly based on renewables such as offshore wind, with a temporary and limited role for ‘blue hydrogen’ produced from natural gas linked to carbon capture and storage (CCS).

France by contrast in its own €7bn national hydrogen strategy has said the country aims at producing ‘carbon-free’ hydrogen, which according to French press reports could include hydrogen produced with nuclear electricity. The country still produces more than 70% of its power from nuclear energy.

“By the end of the year, we want to have [European] Council conclusions on the hydrogen strategy of the European Commission, and there, there will be also the question ‘what about those criteria, when it comes to clean hydrogen?’,” Feicht said.

“There is interest in Europe that also nuclear capacity could be used as a production source for hydrogen. So, that will be discussed as colleagues on the European level.”

Nuclear gaining traction

The idea to use nuclear power in order to decarbonise the economy faster recently has gained some traction among business and governments, although not necessarily as a source to produce hydrogen.

Internet giant Google last month said it will explore both what it calls ‘advanced nuclear’ and green hydrogen to turn its entire global business carbon-free on a 24/7 basis, while the TerraPower venture by Bill Gates has presented small-scale nuclear power-plus-storage technology in order to provide continuous low-carbon electricity.

And the Dutch government is planning to launch a consultation on building new nuclear power plants after a study commissioned by its economics and climate ministry claimed atomic energy is as cheap as wind or solar power – and supposedly the safest way to produce electricity in the country.

The study was conducted by a nuclear energy consultancy with links to the nuclear industry, though. At the same time, a flurry of studies advises against a nuclear renaissance.

‘Nuclear and renewables don’t mix’

The University of Sussex Business School and the ISM International School of Mangement this week published an analysis of 123 countries over 25 years in Nature Energy that concludes that nuclear and renewables don’t mix, and only the latter can deliver truly low carbon energy.

The researchers found that unlike with renewables, countries around the world with larger scale nuclear attachments do not tend to show significantly lower carbon emissions – and in poorer countries nuclear programmes actually tend to associate with relatively higher emissions.

“The evidence clearly points to nuclear being the least effective of the two broad carbon emissions abatement strategies, and coupled with its tendency not to co-exist well with its renewable alternative, this raises serious doubts about the wisdom of prioritising investment in nuclear over renewable energy,” said Benjamin Sovacool, professor of energy policy at the Science Policy Research Unit (SPRU) at the University of Sussex Business School.

“Countries planning large-scale investments in new nuclear power are risking suppression of greater climate benefits from alternative renewable energy investments.”

Atomic power and renewables tend to exhibit lock-ins and path dependencies that crowd each other out, the researchers say pointing to 1990-2014 data from the World Bank and the International Energy Agency that identify a number of ways in which a combined nuclear and renewable energy mix is incompatible.

The report also said that financial markets, regulatory institutions and employment practices structured around large-scale, base-load, long-lead time construction projects for centralized thermal generating plant is not well designed to also facilitate a multiplicity of much smaller short-term distributed initiatives.

Champagne of power fuels

Michael Bloss, a Green Party member of the European Parliament, at the same hydrogen conference stressed that only "green hydrogen is clean hydrogen."

Blue hydrogen as considered as a temporary option by the German government is no real option due to high amounts of methane leakage during its production, which he argued is "much more detrimental for the climate than CO2."

Despite €3.7bn in EU investments into CCS since 2009 (according to the European Court of Auditors), the technology remained at the "beginning of its development" and is still "not ready to be applied," Bloss said.

Renewable energies such as offshore wind, meanwhile, are the most cost-competitive energy source and should be used for hydrogen production, he added, without going into the nuclear versus renewables controversy.

Bloss, however, stressed that it has been said that "hydrogen is the Champagne among power fuels," which must be used only in difficult-to-decarbonise sectors where it cannot be replaced by other applications, such as steel, cement or chemicals.