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Challenge from renewables forces nuclear industry to look beyond electricity generation

Dive Brief:

  • Federally-backed research on applications for nuclear power plants outside of electricity generation could offer new potential for the industry, panelists said Tuesday at a conference hosted by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
  • The Idaho National Laboratory (INL) is modeling ways high-temperature nuclear reactors and small modular reactors could be used to offer thermal power to industrial users at times when electricity generation is not needed. Shannon Bragg-Sitton, director of INL’s integrated energy and storage systems division, said such a plan would require a rethinking of the electricity grid system, but would allow more users to take advantage of the benefits of nuclear plants.
  • After years of questions about nuclear energy’s role on a clean electricity grid, Arshad Mansoor, president and CEO of the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), said momentum is behind the industry. “It is no longer renewables or nuclear,” Mansoor said, “it is clearly both.”
  • Dive Insight:

    The 93 nuclear reactors in the U.S. currently provide 52% of the nation’s clean electricity, according to Department of Energy data. However, faced with competition from low-cost natural gas plants and the declining cost of renewable energy, operators have sought to decommission existing plants and there is little interest in building new ones. Twelve commercial reactors have closed early since 2013 because of economic factors and the only one currently under construction – the Vogtle plant in Georgia – is years behind schedule and over budget.

    Still, some countries and states are taking a new look at nuclear because of its high reliability as a zero-emission source, said EPRI’s Mansoor. West Virginia, for example, lifted restrictions on building new nuclear reactors this year. Regulators also approved NuScale Power’s small modular reactor plant design in July, the first such approval.

    Bragg-Sitton said nuclear still faces significant challenges, especially when renewable generation is high and electricity grid operators do not need supply from nuclear plants. That, she said, makes it important to look at other ways to use the resource. INL’s research looks at how the heat and electricity from nuclear plants could be redirected for industrial use, especially in applications that require high heat like asphalt production.

    The research has modeled ways that nuclear power could be connected to industrial sites in addition to the electricity grid and energy storage devices. Fine-tuning the work, Bragg-Sitton said, could require tailoring reactors to their multiple uses and even looking at co-locating reactors with industrial sites.

    INL is launching a series of pilots to explore on-site hydrogen production at nuclear plants, with pilots set to launch with Exelon Generation at the Nine Mile Point plant in New York and Energy Harbor’s Davis-Besse station in Ohio, among others.

    The bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act includes $9.5 billion for clean hydrogen research and infrastructure, including at least one regional hub producing hydrogen through nuclear power. The law also created a $6 billion program offering aid to nuclear plants that are facing closure for economic reasons.

    Another potential avenue for nuclear power is ammonia production, said Kevin Rouwenhorst, technology manager for the Ammonia Energy Association. Currently, about 75% of ammonia is produced with natural gas and 25% from coal, but with demand expected to triple by the end of the decade, member companies are looking for carbon-free production.

    Researchers have discussed the ability of using waste heat and unused generation to produce hydrogen, then further producing ammonia through synthesis, making the growing industry a natural partner, Rouwenhorst said.

    Source: Utility Dive