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Nuclear Energy: Hydrogen Production Targets

Volume 811: debated on Monday 19 April 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the role of nuclear energy in meeting the United Kingdom’s hydrogen production targets.

My Lords, in begging leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper, I declare my interests as in the register.

My Lords, the energy White Paper acknowledges the important role that both nuclear energy and hydrogen can have in meeting our climate targets. I am aware of industry proposals showing how current nuclear technologies could play a role in hydrogen production during the 2020s, while small and advanced modular reactors could unlock further efficiencies in future hydrogen production. We will say more on the role of hydrogen production technologies, including nuclear, in our forthcoming UK hydrogen strategy.

I thank the Minister for that Answer. Nuclear is a low-carbon, always-on source of power that has the power to economically produce green hydrogen at scale, complementing offshore wind. Will the Minister agree to liaise with the Department for Transport to ensure that nuclear energy is added to the renewable transport fuel obligation following the consultation? This is a great opportunity to create demand and get green hydrogen production moving. Can she also assure the House that nuclear will play a role in her department’s forthcoming hydrogen strategy?

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Ravensdale, makes a very good point. The RTFO was created specifically to address the transport element of the EU renewable energy directive, but to be eligible hydrogen had to be produced from renewable energy. This year we are consulting on preferred long-term sustainable business models and the revenue mechanism to stimulate private investment into new low-carbon hydrogen projects. The UK will take a science-based approach to this whole area of taxonomy. I am sure the noble Lord will have seen the recent leaked report from the EU, which concluded that nuclear is actually no more harmful than any other technology, so we will watch this space.

My Lords, given the strategic and economic significance of hydrogen to the future of the UK economy and climate change, does the Minister believe there are sufficient safeguards in place to ensure that interruption to supplies can be prevented and emerging technical solutions can be protected from any foreign Government who might operate or acquire nuclear facilities in the UK?

The noble Lord, Lord Empey, makes a very good point—particularly as the National Security and Investment Bill is proceeding through the House this week. I assure him that the UK has a robust safety and security regime. Any nuclear reactor operating in the UK now or in the future will be subject to those safety and security regulations.

My Lords, there is clearly a huge opportunity for hydrogen to help us achieve our net zero ambitions and create quality jobs across the UK. I note that the global hydrogen race is really heating up. I hope the Minister will agree that, with the UK having done distinguished science in the field, we must not allow others to walk away with the prize of commercial exploitation, as has happened too often in the past. We must benefit from our own scientific activities; I hope we do. Does the Minister agree that, as others have mentioned, in view of the importance of nuclear in this area and as the UK has operational nuclear sites and great expertise, we should start with this now to drive forward green hydrogen production with innovative schemes, such the one associated with the Freeport East Hydrogen Hub? That should be at the forefront of our efforts.

I entirely agree with the noble Baroness as we have a world-leading position in the production of both green and blue hydrogen. I also welcome the Freeport East Hydrogen Hub. In an ideal world we would see Sizewell C being built by workers transported on hydrogen buses made by Wrightbus. We would see all the heavy loading gear at the ports driven by hydrogen-powered cranes and JCB diggers, which have been adapted for hydrogen.

My Lords, I ask the Minister: how much support is being given to the development of high-temperature gas-cooled reactors—HTGRs—to produce hydrogen? All forms of nuclear reactors can be used to generate hydrogen—I strongly support the proposals for Sizewell B and C—but the high-temperature capabilities of HGTRs make them especially suitable for producing hydrogen because they enable the relatively efficient hydrogen reforming and closed-cycle thermochemical processes for hydrogen production.

The noble Lord is entirely right: the HGTRs are a very promising AMR technology which the Government have supported with £30 million for feasibility and development of AMR designs and the £170 million committed in the 10-point plan. I am delighted that the National Nuclear Laboratory and the Japan Atomic Energy Agency have been working together on this project and produced a report last October calling for increased collaboration on their technical agreements.

The energy density of ammonia, which combines one atom of nitrogen with three of hydrogen, exceeds that of hydrogen. This makes it a useful vector of energy. Its use in land transport is inhibited by its messiness and toxicity; nevertheless, it represents an ideal fuel for shipping. It can also be produced cheaply and efficiently by allying the Haber process with a nuclear reactor. Are the Government mindful of such opportunities and, if so, do they propose to pursue them?

The Government are mindful of such opportunities and ammonia represents good potential as an energy storage medium. BEIS has supported ammonia-related innovation projects under our £33 million hydrogen supply competition. Between BEIS and the Department for Transport, we are dealing directly with a clean maritime plan setting out both hydrogen and ammonia, which are expected to play a significant role in decarbonising the maritime sector.

My Lords, I draw attention to my interests in Aldustria Ltd. Surely to use an extremely expensive form of energy such as nuclear power to produce another form of energy such as hydrogen, with all the efficiency losses that that entails, cannot make sense. With the Prime Minister’s call for a massive increase in offshore renewables, surely what we need now is not more baseload energy but counter variable, flexible sources such as interconnectors, demand response and energy storage.

I certainly do not agree with the premise of the noble Lord’s question. Sizewell C will use only 35% of its heat, with the rest being discharged into the sea. If we can use that excess heat to produce blue hydrogen, that has to be a very good factor in achieving net zero by 2050.

My Lords, countries across the world are investing billions of pounds into kickstarting their hydrogen economies. We have the ingredients in this country ready to go: great offshore wind capabilities and a highly skilled nuclear industry. This country also manufactures a lot of hydrogen equipment, from electrolysers to boilers and buses. Does my noble friend therefore agree that we should do everything possible now to use the UK’s nuclear energy resources to get our hydrogen economy going and thus ensure as many hydrogen jobs as possible are created in the UK?

Of course I agree with my noble friend. The UK’s 5 gigawatt production ambition could support up to 8,000 jobs and £0.7 billion gross value added by 2030. This puts us on a pathway to up to 100,000 jobs and £12 billion of GVA by 2050 under a high hydrogen scenario.

It is clear that there is a role for hydrogen in the UK’s future energy mix and that nuclear has the potential for cogeneration, producing electricity and heat together. It is also clear that the Government are actively favouring the production of blue hydrogen—an option reliant on fossil fuels. Can the Minister confirm whether the Government will commit to using a net-zero hydrogen fund to prioritise the production of green hydrogen and encourage the participation of the nuclear industry in the Hydrogen Advisory Council?

I disagree that we are actively encouraging the production of blue hydrogen; we are in a position to do so only because of the length of time that it will take to get AMR and new nuclear technology on stream to help us with the production of green hydrogen. The Government are following the twin-track approach, supporting both electrolytic green hydrogen and CCUS-enabled blue low-carbon hydrogen production in the meantime. We keep the membership of the Hydrogen Advisory Council under review at all times.

My Lords, the Government have pledged to increase low-carbon hydrogen production capacity to five gigawatts by 2030. Have the necessary investment commitments been made to achieve that objective, and what role will hydrogen produced through nuclear energy play in helping to hit that target?

Investment was a point made very powerfully by Bill Gates in his new book. We recognise the importance of ambition and a supportive policy framework in building investor confidence in the development of low-carbon technologies in the UK. The Government’s dedicated hydrogen strategy, which will be published in the second quarter of this year, will have more detail on how we work with industry to meet the 2030 ambition, but it will also incorporate a “minded to” paper—that is Civil Service speak—on ways that we could finance these large projects.