Hydrogen production, district heating … Tomorrow, nuclear reactors for everything

This is still just a hypothetical scenario. But he’s already making nuclear players dream. In this atom-friendly future, reactors would inherit new missions. Not only would they produce electricity for homes and businesses, but their energy would power electrolyzers, water desalination plants or large merchant ships. Its own heat would be recovered to heat buildings or boost hydrogen production.

In a recent report, BloombergNEF experts already evoke a possible “renaissance” in the industry. “It’s a bit early to use this word,” says Valérie Faudon, general delegate of the French Nuclear Energy Society (SFEN), who prefers the term convalescence. However: climate change really opens up new prospects for atomic technologies. “The challenge now is to decarbonize our uses,” confirms Stéphane Sarrade, director of energy programs at the Atomic Energy and Alternative Energies Commission (CEA). By 2050, the Earth will have nine billion inhabitants, of which 60% will be in large urban centers. It will consist of the fournir de l’énergie, du chauffage, des solutions pour la mobilité et de l’eau drinkable, sans détraquer davantage le climat “, detaille le scientifique. Or, cette mission semble impossible à realized en comptant uniquement sur les renewable energy.

“In the latest report from the French RTE network manager, all scenarios mention a significant increase in hydrogen and carbon-free electricity requirements,” adds Thomas Branche, senior vice president for energy transition and infrastructure at Assystem. This is where nuclear power comes into play. “Without a significant contribution from him, it is impossible to meet net CO2 emissions targets,” warns Chris Gadomski, chief analyst at BloombergNEF. “We know, for example, that there will not be enough renewable energy to sustain the demand for green hydrogen. Therefore, we will have to turn to the atom,” confirms Thomas Branche.

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Decarbonize hydrogen production

The simplest way will be initially to connect the electrolysers to the national electricity grid. These facilities will recover hydrogen by passing electrical current through an aqueous solution. This is the path chosen by Auxerre, which recently had a hydrogen production and distribution station destined to supply trains, coaches or buses. But to increase the efficiency of this type of equipment, it will be possible to inject additional heat from a nuclear reactor. The idea is not new. It consists of diverting part of the steam that circulates in the secondary water circuit of a power plant. This heat then powers a so-called high-temperature electrolyzer. “We are currently studying the possibility of taking this type of sampling at the planned EPR in the Sizewell area in England,” explains Bernard Salha, EDF R&D and technical director.

China and the United States are planning the same kind of “tapping” on their large reactors, but the technique would work just as well on SMRs, these pocket power plants that Emmanuel Macron recently announced to build. “Recovering steam also seems more sensible in new installations, estimates Valérie Faudon. Because to modify the current plants, studies, authorizations and works are needed. It would take too long”.

In the future, new reactor models will be able to generate outlet temperatures of the order of 800 or 900 degrees. Enough to break water molecules without electrical current. “From an efficiency point of view, this is by far the best way to produce hydrogen, but the research takes time. There is still no real prototype,” acknowledges Samuele Furfari, president of the European Union of Engineers and Engineers Company. Industrial While they await their arrival, nuclear heat still offers other opportunities, for example in desalination.

Nuclear heated buildings

Part of the steam can be channeled to produce soft water by evaporation, although other techniques require the use of electrical energy. “Being schematic, we can imagine reactors that produce electricity during the day, and hydrogen and drinking water at night by reverse osmosis. This flexibility of use will be a key element for future reactors ”, says Stéphane Sarrade. Because in all likelihood, humanity will run out of fresh water before running out of oil. Proof of this is the rise of desalination equipment around the world, which also consumes a lot of energy.

Lastly, steam from power plants could provide heat to nearby towns. “The Soviet Union was already using this solution,” recalls Chris Gadomski. More recently, Eastern Europe, Switzerland and China are also putting the idea into practice. “District heating is one of the most promising non-electric applications of industrial nuclear energy,” read a note from SFEN. For a long time, the geographical distance between power plants and users was a brake on their development. But today it is possible to transport hot water over 100 kilometers with less than 2% heat loss. This progress opens up new perspectives. Included in France. To the point of satisfying, through nuclear energy, half of France’s energy needs for heating and domestic hot water, as the study suggests?

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“The debate is not at all advanced on these issues. These new functions are rather for ten or fifteen years from now,” acknowledges Valérie Faudon. It is time for France to build its first SMR models. “We do not want to increase the number of nuclear sites in the long term”, specifies Bernard Salha. The priority will be to replace the existing reactors to avoid the proliferation of sensitive sites in the territory. The sea, on the other hand, could become more nuclear under the impetus of the maritime sector. “This sector consumes a lot of energy. Its fuel oil pollutes, contains sulfur, heavy metals … Of course, shipowners are gradually converting to natural gas, but it is still a fossil fuel and the number of boats will grow in the coming years. Something else will have to be found. Russia has long demonstrated with its icebreakers that a ship can be powered by nuclear energy. I wouldn’t be surprised if China would one day announce that one of its container ships works this way. “Says Samuele Furfari.” The question is not really technical. It requires, above all, authorizations and dedicated infrastructures in the receiving ports “, specifies Valérie Faudon. One could very well imagine a great world line feeding smaller ramifications. In this way, the most maritime transport would be carbon-free.” Is the company ready for this? Only the future will tell. “Among the new generations, there is a real awareness of the climate emergency”, observes Stéphane Sarrade, however. The opportunity, according to him, to finally get out of the Palaeolithic debate by opposing nuclear and renewable energy.

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Robin Rivaton, essayist, member of the scientific council and evaluator of the Foundation for political innovation (Fondapol).Robin rivaton

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