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UK urged to be world leader in nuclear-derived synthetic fuels

The RAF and Zero Petroleum set a Guinness World Record in 2021 for the world’s first successful flight using only synthetic fuel (Image: MoD/gov.uk)

Large-scale production of nuclear-derived net-zero synthetic fuels could help hard-to-decarbonise sectors such as aviation and shipping, according to a report by energy consultants Equilibrion and the Nuclear Industry Association (NIA).

The report, Synthetic Fuels: The Opportunity for Economy Scale Production of Synthetic Fuels from Nuclear Energysays the transport sector is responsible for 27% of global greenhouse emissions, with sectors such as shipping and aviation among those hard to decarbonise.

Synthetic fuels are not derived from extracted fossil fuels and “rely on carbon dioxide obtained from the environment and low carbon hydrogen feedstock to synthesise hydrogen-based fuels that perform like fossil fuels but with no net release of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere”, the report explains, adding that synthetic fuel production can use CO2 from different sources, including industrial emissions or direct air or seawater capture.

“The drawback is that synthetic fuel production routes are perceived as energy intensive and restricted in availability due to assessments which solely consider the use of renewable energy. This is where nuclear can deliver the solution needed … and unlock the path to far greater supply of synthetic fuels to the sectors which need it most, reducing emissions beyond what can be achieved with bio-fuel alternatives and even becoming carbon negative in the future,” the report adds.

It says that heat and electricity generated by nuclear power plants can be used for all stages of the process, i.e. desalination to produce clean water for hydrogen production. It urges the UK government to recognise the potential role of nuclear in its upcoming Sustainable Aviation Fuel Mandate, it also recommends UK government and non-government net-zero modelling should include nuclear-derived synthetic fuels and that the government should “consider amendments to the Renewable Transport Fuels Obligation to enable nuclear to be exploited for the production of fuels in the wider low carbon fuels market”.

Some of these measures are set to be taken forward by the UK government’s Energy Security Bill, which is currently being considered by the House of Lords. It proposes including nuclear-derived fuels under renewable transport fuel schemes, giving as examples the production of sustainable aviation fuel and hydrogen.

The report predicts a global synthetic fuels market of USD15.3 billion by 2030 and USD600 billion by 2050.

Tom Greatrex, chief executive of NIA, which is the trade association for the civil nuclear sector in the UK, said: “Nuclear energy can play a crucial role in providing the primary energy to support the decarbonisation of sectors which are currently almost entirely reliant on fossil fuels. The UK must take this golden opportunity to be a global leader and we stand ready to provide the energy that the market needs.”

Phil Rogers, director of Equilibrion, which says its purpose “is to work with businesses to fulfil the potential of nuclear energy to decarbonise our heat, transport and industrial sectors”, said: “The transport sector is responsible for close to a third of UK emissions, so the ability to directly replace fossil fuels with zero carbon equivalents, particularly for aviation, shipping and heavy transport, could have a game-changing impact on our journey to net-zero.”

Source: World Nuclear News