A new generation of nuclear reactors could help the U.K. contain carbon emissions by harnessing surplus energy to heat homes, produce hydrogen and decarbonize industry. A policy briefing issued by The Royal Society considers how nuclear projects can complement renewables and help the country meet its net-zero carbon emissions pledge by 2050.

Planned new-build nuclear plants are designed primarily for the generation of electricity but the designs could be modified to make use of the various benefits of cogeneration. The technology gives nuclear power the flexibility to function in an energy system where a growing proportion of electricity comes from intermittent renewables. When domestic energy demand is being met by wind, solar or other sources, cogeneration allows a nuclear plant to switch from electricity generation to cogeneration applications such as the production of hydrogen.

A typical nuclear power station produces around 3.4 GW of heat, equivalent to about 100,000 domestic gas boilers, which is used to generate around 1.2 GW of electricity. Currently, around 65% of the energy is lost in the conversion as waste heat.

Small modular reactors (SMRs) with capacities up to 300 MW of energy or less can be installed in factories and deployed in stages. Use of these units could translate into lower investment costs and economies of scale in construction and affords flexibility in locating stations. Advanced modular reactors, a new generation of SMRs, are expected to generate temperatures in excess of 600° C, which are required for chemical production and other processes that are difficult to decarbonize.

While there are no current nuclear cogeneration projects in the U.K., there are options for future use such as district heating, which currently provides only 2% of heat demand. SMR-powered district heating systems could prove feasible in urban areas. High temperature heat from SMRs could also contribute to the production of hydrogen for use in zero-carbon fuels and energy storage and to sustainable synthetic fuel production.

High- and low-temperature heat generated by civil nuclear reactors can be harnessed for different applications. Source: The Royal SocietyHigh- and low-temperature heat generated by civil nuclear reactors can be harnessed for different applications. Source: The Royal Society

To contact the author of this article, email shimmelstein@globalspec.com