As discussed in “The Long-Term Strategy of the United States: Pathways to Net-Zero Greenhouse Gas Emissions by 2050,” the U.S. population is feeling the impacts of a changing climate. In 2021, the U.S. experienced historic droughts and wildfires in the west, unprecedented storms and flooding in the southeast, and record heat waves across the country. The evidence of climate change is also apparent throughout the world. The U.S. and more than 100 other countries are now united via the Paris Agreement’s establishment of an aggressive goal to achieve net-zero carbon emissions no later than 2050.
Achieving this net-zero emissions goal will require actions spanning every sector of the economy: agriculture, commercial and residential, industry, electricity generation, and transportation, along with an immense amount of carbon-free energy. Tens of thousands of 150-MWth (megawatt thermal) reactors would be required to provide all the needed carbon-free energy. It should be noted that not all applications can be directly replaced with electricity, and many need direct heat, hydrogen, or other energy forms due to the nature of the process.
In response, the U.S. nuclear industry is evaluating the capability of the existing fleet of commercial nuclear plants to supply process heat and non-electric energy products like hydrogen. In parallel, the U.S. nuclear industry is developing advanced nuclear plant technologies with the capability of producing process heat, along with supplying electricity for industrial applications.
By identifying opportunities to utilize process heat from nuclear power plants for industrial applications, the nuclear industry can significantly help reduce carbon dioxide emissions by reducing the global reliance on fossil fuels. In 2020, 64 nuclear power reactors across 10 countries applied approximately 3.390 GW/hr (gigawatts per hour) of electrical equivalent heat to support non-electric applications. Most of these applications for district heating and process heat were in Europe and Asia.
To facilitate turning this proven concept of utilizing nuclear process heat into reality in the U.S., a true partnership between the U.S. nuclear industry, government, national laboratories, and academia must be established. This mutual alignment will advance the use of nuclear process heat production within the next several years to help the United States attain its goal of net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.
Authors: Rick Goetzke, Ivo Garza, Mike Nena, Robert Field, Steve Malak, and Al Wilson