Report: Nuclear power a bad source of hydrogen for CO2 capture—natural gas better

The study, written by Christian Solli, was carried out on the initiative of the Bellona Foundation, and the foundation’s opinion of the results, therefore, is that hydrogen should not be produced with the help of nuclear power plants.

But hydrogen use as a fuel for both land and marine based transport may, in the long term, contribute to a more renewable and energy efficient transport sector. However, hydrogen does not exist freely in nature and must be produced from other energy resources. Currently, there is an ongoing political debate concerning the availability of environmentally friendly resources for hydrogen production.

The recent Norwegian University of Science and Technology thesis, entitled “FISSION OR FOSSIL? A Comparative Hybrid Life Cycle Assessment of Two Different Hydrogen Production Methods,” describes the environmental effects of hydrogen production from natural gas and from nuclear power.

Where does hydrogen come from?
Hydrogen can be produced from any source of energy, such as hydropower, wind power, oil, gas and nuclear power. However, in the short to medium term future, the hope of supplying hydrogen from renewable energy sources only is unrealistic. This is due to the currently low production of renewable energy. Therefore, many countries are likely to choose to produce hydrogen from the sources of energy that are most readily available, namely fossil fuels such as oil and gas or nuclear power.

For some years now, the nuclear industry has argued that by using nuclear power for hydrogen production, CO2 emissions from the production phase can be avoided. This has sparked a debate in many EU countries about hydrogen from nuclear power. However, the industry itself rarely debates the environmental detriments caused by nuclear power.

Natural gas cleaner overall
The results from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology thesis show that despite the lower emissions of greenhouse gases from nuclear power, this technology gives rise to high environmental concern in other areas. In comparison to hydrogen production from natural gas with CO2 capture, nuclear power is particularly bad news when it comes to radioactive waste, depletion of the ozone layer and the pollution of ecosystems, for instance in fresh and salt water. On the whole, the natural gas option comes out the best in eight of 11 environmental categories.

It is methodologically difficult to compare the different types of environmental effects, and the Norwegian University of Science and Technology thesis does not choose a “winner” among the alternatives. Even so, the thesis is significant, as it provides an overview over how the various methods of production compare on the basis of their strengths, weaknesses and scope for improvement.

The thesis discusses neither the risks of accidents nor the waste disposal problem, which arises from used fuel from nuclear power plants. This waste and nuclear power’s attendant risks comprise a particularly grave environmental problem.

In the thesis, hydrogen produced from thermo-chemical water-splitting with nuclear power is compared to hydrogen produced from the reformation of natural gas with CO2 capture. Thermo-chemical water-splitting in nuclear reactors is still a technology of the future, while reformation of natural gas with CO2 capture is somewhat better developed.

As the thesis is based on technology that is not currently available, one can expect hydrogen from nuclear power to be produced via electricity and through electrolysis in the short term. In practice, this will reduce energy efficiency. The total environmental burden from nuclear power would then increase accordingly.

The thesis
The thesis was written by Solli at the Institute for Industrial Ecology (www.indecol.ntnu.no) at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Norway, and was carried out after an initiative from the Bellona Foundation. The thesis is a life cycle analysis of two different methods of hydrogen production. The Bellona Foundation plans further cooperation with the Norwegian University of Science and Technology for future theses in this field.

Bent Isak Ramberg Oksvold