Nu­clear may hitch wagon to hy­dro­gen

Bangkok Post - - WORLD -

The nu­clear in­dus­try should tap into ris­ing in­vestor in­ter­est in hy­dro­gen-fuel to re­vive the flag­ging prospects of re­ac­tor op­er­a­tors in an in­creas­ingly crowded mar­ket­place for clean power.

That was the mes­sage de­liv­ered by ex­ec­u­tives and sci­en­tists who con­vened this week at the In­ter­na­tional Atomic En­ergy Agency. Higher de­mand for hy­dro­gen from in­dus­try and heavy trans­port could make pro­duc­tion of the fuel by op­er­at­ing re­ac­tors more eco­nom­i­cal, po­ten­tially breath­ing new life into a tech­nol­ogy that’s been over­taken by wind and so­lar power.

“If nu­clear can be lever­aged to gen­er­ate al­ter­na­tive rev­enue streams, its costs can be off­set,” said Glo­ria Kwong, the Nu­clear En­ergy Agency’s head of tech­nol­ogy, at the IAEA’s an­nual gen­eral con­fer­ence this week in Vi­enna. Ex­ec­u­tives from the Korean Atomic En­ergy In­sti­tute and Cana­dian Nu­clear Lab­o­ra­to­ries sim­i­larly rec­om­mended a pivot to­ward hy­dro­gen to buoy the in­dus­try’s prospects.

Nu­clear has been left largely be­hind by boom­ing de­mand for clean en­ergy over the past decade. In most economies, more re­ac­tors are be­ing per­ma­nently shut down than built. Bal­loon­ing costs and long con­struc­tion de­lays have prompted in­vestors to shy away from the tech­nol­ogy de­spite its emis­sions-free cre­den­tials. In re­cent years, only China has man­aged to drive down costs through a state-fi­nanced pro­gramme to ex­pand gen­er­a­tion do­mes­ti­cally.

Nu­clear could be “a per­fect part­ner for hy­dro­gen” be­cause of the high-ca­pac­ity oper­a­tion and heat pro­duced by re­ac­tors, ac­cord­ing to Boris Schucht, the chief ex­ec­u­tive of­fi­cer of Urenco Ltd, the world’s sec­ond-big­gest atomic fuel maker. But hy­dro­gen would still have to be “highly utilised” be­fore it makes eco­nomic sense for nu­clear to be­gin pro­duc­tion, he said.

The nu­clear in­dus­try’s turn to the uni­verse’s light­est and most plen­ti­ful el­e­ment as a po­ten­tial saviour has been met with doubt among an­a­lysts.

“The in­clu­sion of nu­clear in the hy­dro­gen econ­omy in­creases com­plex­ity and will raise safety is­sues,” said Ali Ah­mad, a physi­cist and re­searcher at Har­vard Univer­sity. “The nu­clear in­dus­try is try­ing to find ways to add value but I’m very scep­ti­cal.”

Ah­mad, who spoke Thurs­day from Beirut while pre­sent­ing the 2020 World Nu­clear In­dus­try Sta­tus Re­port, pointed to the cost tra­jec­to­ries of nu­clear and so­lar power in the United Arab Emi­rates. Since the Gulf na­tion be­gan ramp­ing up tri­als of both tech­nolo­gies in 2012, the cost of gen­er­at­ing so­lar power has dropped al­most 90% while those of nu­clear have risen, he said.

With­out new in­vest­ments in nu­clear, the av­er­age age of the world’s re­ac­tors is in­creas­ing, re­quir­ing ever more re­sources ded­i­cated to main­te­nance and safety. The IAEA is en­cour­ag­ing coun­tries to con­sider build­ing smaller, more mod­u­lar vari­ants of re­ac­tors that can com­ple­ment the vari­abil­ity of cheap so­lar and wind power.

“The old times of the huge megapro­jects are gone,” IAEA Direc­tor Gen­eral Rafael Mar­i­ano Grossi said. “We will con­tinue to see im­por­tant big projects, 1,000 megawatts or more be­ing built, but at the same time we are go­ing to be see­ing dif­fer­ent, more flex­i­ble so­lu­tions.”

Ja­panese PM Shinzo Abe is briefed about tanks con­tain­ing ra­dioac­tive wa­ter in Fukushima Dai­ichi nu­clear plant in 2013.

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