Nuclear to pave path to net-zero future, experts say

Hydrogen from nuclear power would produce dual decarbonization benefit

'If we want to achieve our net-zero target for 2050, it’s impossible to achieve it without nuclear' – Christyne Tremblay, deputy minister of Natural Resources Canada. | Nelson Bennett Photo

There is no way countries like Canada can meet commitments to net-zero emissions by 2050 without the whole suite of available low-emission technologies, including nuclear power.

That was the consensus of a number of expert panelists from various sectors – including the renewable energy sector – at panel discussions on energy transformations at last week’s Globe 2020 conference.

“If we want to achieve our net-zero target for 2050, it’s impossible to achieve it without nuclear,” Christyne Tremblay, deputy minister of Natural Resources Canada, said at a side panel discussion on the convergence of nuclear power and hydrogen.

Small modular nuclear reactors (SMRs) are on their way in Canada. Ontario, New Brunswick and Saskatchewan signed a co-operation agreement last year to develop SMRs, with the first ones expected to be online in 2028.

Not only would SMRs be able to backstop intermittent wind and solar power, they could also be used to produce green hydrogen through a thermochemical process being developed by Canadian Nuclear Laboratories.

Unfortunately for next-generation nuclear power advocates, this zero-emission energy source still suffers from bad press, concerns about costs and misperceptions that are largely based on the hazards that afflict first-generation nuclear power.

Nuclear power also faces a strong public preference for wind and solar power as a decarbonization panacea. This was illustrated at a Globe panel discussion last week involving representatives of the nuclear power, renewable energy and oil industries and environmental groups.

At the start of the discussion, the audience was asked to vote, via a Slido poll, on the proposition: “An accelerated deployment of renewable energy (wind, solar and hydro) is the only way to keep global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.”

At the beginning, 73% agreed with the proposition. By the end of the discussion, it had barely budged down to 70%, despite all members of the panel agreeing that the full array of low-carbon options is needed, including nuclear power.

“There is no one way to hold average global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius,” said Catherine Abreu, executive director of Climate Action Network Canada. “Really, at this point, it’s an all-hands-on deck approach. Climate action requires us doing everything we can, all at once, everywhere, now.”

(Abreu later clarified that she wasn't necessarily including nuclear power in that "all-hands-on-deck" approach. She said her position on nuclear power is "more nuanced than a yes/no response.")

Asked if Evolugen, a renewable energy company, would consider investing in nuclear power, Evolugen CEO Josée Guibord said it would. In fact, Evolugen’s parent, Brookfield Asset Management (TSX:BAM), invested $4.6 billion in nuclear in 2018, when it acquired Toshiba’s nuclear power company, Westinghouse Electric Co.

“We are looking at different technologies, and we would look at nuclear,” Guibord said.

The concern with a renewables-only approach to decarbonizing the grid is its intermittency and low power densities.

Wind and solar alone simply haven’t proven to be up to the task at hand. They need a steady power backup supply, and in places like Germany and California, that has come from coal and natural gas.

Small nuclear reactors could provide that backup, with zero emissions, said John Gorman, formerly president of the Canadian Solar Industries Association and now president and CEO of the Canadian Nuclear Association.

While nuclear power can decarbonize the electricity grid, replacing coal and natural gas power doesn’t really address emissions from fossil fuels used in transportation, which is where hydrogen comes in.

Demand for hydrogen in fuel cells has been slow in coming. But the demand is now growing, especially in China, and is expected to rise in Europe, where new emission regulations for the trucking sector are expected to drive greater adoption of fuel cell trucks. And that will mean a demand for hydrogen.

Hydrogen can be produced from natural gas; the product is known as blue hydrogen. Green hydrogen can be made from water and renewable electricity through electrolysis.

In places like B.C., which has abundant hydroelectric power, there may be an economic case for green hydrogen production from wind and hydro power. But in provinces with nuclear power, there may be a better case for hydrogen from nuclear power.

Kathryn McCarthy, vice-president of research and development at the Canadian Nuclear Laboratories, said her lab is developing a process for making hydrogen from nuclear power using a thermochemical process that may make it more efficient and less costly than conventional electrolysis.

It uses the heat from a nuclear power plant and a copper-chlorine compound to “decompose” water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen. Higher temperatures make the hydrogen production from water more efficient.

“You can currently today do electrolysis at room temperature, but high-temperature electrolysis has the potential to produce hydrogen less expensively,” McCarthy said. “Similarly, with some of the thermochemical cycles, like the process we’re developing – copper-chorine – it has the potential to produce hydrogen at a lower cost.”

Tremblay said Canada’s clean-energy road map aims to make Canada a leading producer and exporter of both green hydrogen and fuel cell technology, as well as “a Tier 1 nuclear nation.”

(Editor's note: This story has been updated to add a clarification from Catherine Abreu on her position on nuclear power.)