The Nuclear Hydrogen Initiative Says Nuclear Hydrogen Is a Critical Climate Solution

We have seen this movie before and we didn't like the ending.

Hinkley C reactor being built in UK
Hinkley Point C reactor being built in the U.K. in May 2022.

Finnbar Webster / Getty Images

More than 40 global participants announced the formation of the Nuclear Hydrogen Initiative, which is described as "a coalition working to advance nuclear hydrogen as a critical climate solution." A statement said: "The initiative will engage policymakers, businesses, investors, and other key stakeholders to raise awareness of the important role nuclear hydrogen can play in delivering carbon-free, secure and affordable energy."

"We envision our nuclear plants becoming versatile clean energy centers that not only generate 24/7 carbon-free electricity for the grid, but also bring together clean hydrogen, renewables and other new and emerging technologies to power every corner of our economy," said Colleen Wright, vice president of Corporate Strategy for Constellation, the largest American nuclear operator with 21 plants. "Climate experts agree we can't fully solve the climate crisis without abundant sources of hydrogen, and nuclear energy remains the most efficient and economical way to produce it on the scale we need."

It's déjà vu all over again. Back in the early days of Treehugger, everyone was talking about the hydrogen economy after Jeremy Rivkin's book of the same name. He wrote in 2003:

 "1,000 companies around the world are already racing to the hydrogen future — the speed up in R&D and market introduction is reminiscent of the early days of the personal computer revolution and the emergence of the world wide web. A recent study done by Price Waterhouse Coopers forecasted that in less than 18 years hydrogen technologies and related goods and services will exceed 1.7 trillion dollars in worldwide sales. We are truly on the cusp of a new economic era — with far-reaching consequences for society."

The nuclear industry loved the idea. It could supply the electricity to make the green hydrogen that would run the fuel cells that by 2006 would "power up your cell phone and laptop computer for 40 days with one cartridge." Cars, buses, and trucks would all run on hydrogen fuel cells within a few years. It seemed like the whole hydrogen hype was a shill for the nuclear industry. 

Then the Fukushima nuclear disaster hit in 2011 and the nuclear industry got very quiet. Battery technology improved so much—so fast that fuel cells fell by the wayside for cars and nobody is carrying hydrogen-powered cellphones.

But thanks to the good work by the fossil fuel industry, the hydrogen economy is having another moment and the nuclear industry doesn't want to miss this boat. With the memories of Fukushima fading, it appears the nuclear industry is ready to have another go, with the announcement of the NHI and publishing its report, "Nuclear Hydrogen For a Carbon-Free Energy System."

Uses for hydrogen

Nuclear Hydrogen Initiative

There's no question hydrogen is useful stuff. Lots of it is used to make ammonia for fertilizer. And we have noted before that an ammonia economy might make more sense than a hydrogen economy since it is easier to store and transport, and can be put directly into internal combustion engines. It can be used in industrial processes for heat and in steelmaking to replace coal. But in all the other hydrogen uses and many of the ammonia uses, chemical batteries have eaten fuel cells' lunch. And really, power generation? Nobody is going to make hydrogen with electricity just to turn it back into electricity.

So why is this happening and why now? Paul Martin is a founding member of the Hydrogen Science Coalition, which provides "clear, unbiased, financially disinterested, science-based advice to government, the media and the general public, in relation to the role of hydrogen in a decarbonized future." He tells Treehugger:

I don't think it makes ANY sense to waste nuclear electricity on making hydrogen. Nuclear plants produce dispatchable power already and that is highly useful to the grid. The reason nuclear advocates are reaching for hydrogen is that they know their value proposition is being eaten by allowing solar and wind onto the grid, which are far cheaper than nuclear when they're available. So whereas it is clear that making hydrogen from intermittent renewables at low capacity factor is not economic, the nuclear people are looking to intermittently make hydrogen from their power when the grid is instead being satisfied with cheaper wind and solar.

The nuclear industry complains that wind and solar are intermittent, and what are they doing here? Proposing to intermittently make hydrogen when they can't sell their power, which will likely soon be most sunny and windy days?

Advanced Reactors under development

Nuclear Hydrogen Initiative

Don't get me wrong: Many of us at Treehugger like, or at least respect, nuclear power; it is pumping out a lot of zero-carbon power, and we need every kWhr of it if we are going to electrify everything. The NHI report suggests there is a lot of it coming:

"There are over 70 advanced reactor designs being developed at various phases of readiness as shown in Figure 5. These advanced reactors are based on various technologies such as LWRs, High-Temperature Gas Reactors (HTGRs), liquid metal coolants (sodium, lead, lead-bismuth) fast reactors (LFRs), Molten Salt Reactors (MSRs), heat pipes, and other advanced and innovative designs. Each brings certain operational characteristics which capitalize on the nuclear power industry's experience to date to offer designs that are even safer than current generation plants, with flexibility and varying degrees of applicability to produce clean hydrogen ." 

But of course, there is no timeline on when these reactors will get approved, where and when they will get built, or whether they will be cost-competitive with solar and wind for making hydrogen. Hyping an entire hydrogen economy around these seems a bit speculative.

We definitely need lots of green hydrogen to decarbonize some intractable chemistries for making ammonia, steel, or other processes needing high heat. Our existing nukes are great at providing power for clean, dependable base load electricity. But mashing them together somehow seems like grasping at straws.