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

Countries like Canada cannot 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 experts 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,” said Christyne Tremblay, deputy minister of Natural Resources Canada while discussing the convergence of nuclear power and hydrogen.

Small modular nuclear reactors (SMRs) will soon have a presence in Canada. Ontario, New Brunswick and Saskatchewan signed a co-operation agreement last year to develop SMRs, with the first 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, said panelists.

However there are still concerns about costs and misconceptions – largely based on the hazards that affect first-generation nuclear power, and most people prefer wind and solar power as a decarbonization panacea.

“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.”

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

Wind and solar need a steady power backup supply, and in places like Germany and California, that has come from coal and natural gas.

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

Demand for hydrogen in fuel cells 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. That would mean an increase in demand for hydrogen.

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.”

– Nelson Bennett, Business in Vancouver