Why Are These People Talking About Nuclear Power And Industry?

What if we could find a low carbon alternative for burning natural gas for industrial applications and avoid millions of tons of CO2 emissions? Nuclear energy has been a workhorse provider of electric power in the U.S. for decades – now producing about 20% of our electricity. Electric power in some ways dominates the discussion on climate and energy security. A newbie who just dropped into that debate – featuring renewables vs coal vs oil vs natural gas vs nuclear – might think that if somehow we could just lick this electric power issue, all of our problems would be solved. Turns out that’s not even close to true of course.

(Click here for a graphic on primary energy consumption by source and sector 2010 – chart courtesy of U.S. Energy Information Administration)

In fact, electric power accounts for only just about 38% of all of the energy we use. That’s significant, but even if we substantially crank up the percentage of nuclear in that sector, we still are not making a huge dent in the big energy picture. The transportation and industrial sectors of our economy actually account for about 47% of our energy consumption and THAT is exactly where we’re most dependent on oil and natural gas and exactly where renewables are the least likely to have a major impact. See the attached graphic, but it turns out that around one third of natural gas usage is associated with industry (somewhat more than for each of the residential/commercial and electric power sectors). Over 70% of petroleum (our largest single energy source) is used in the transportation sector and and somewhat over 20% in industry.

As mentioned before, Light Water Reactors simply don’t have hot enough outlet temperatures (limited to around 350C) to make them relevant to substituting for natural gas in industry or for converting coal or other carbon stocks into liquid fuels. However, High Temperature Gas Cooled Reactors not only have the outlet temperatures necessary (750 degrees C and above), but also have the safety characteristics that make co-location possible.

But that same drop-in newbie might ask: “Looks to me like natural gas prices are low and supplies are plentiful, why bother?” Well, haven’t we been down this road before? Most of us over 40 (or is that 30?) instinctively know that as we switch out our existing coal generation to natural gas and maybe move toward more natural gas fueled transportation technology, etc. we’re no doubt hastening the day when gas prices will be going up. So why not try to do a bit of a nuclear end-run around this bad dynamic and plan ahead?

If it’s true that renewables such as solar and wind need not apply for the heavy energy lifting and feedstocks required by the industrial sector (that’s an argument for a different day) and that ultimately we need to wean ourselves as much as possible from fossil fuels for reasons of cost, supply and maybe even climate (maybe even that’s an argument for another day), then it seems apparent that nuclear energy is really the only significant remaining option.

And, it turns out, that in some places in the world, High Temperature Gas Reactor technology could be economically competitive for industrial applications today

For several years now, the NGNP project has been evaluating this technology in a wide range of industrial applications. For example, the HTGR technology is a technically viable low-carbon substitute for the burning of natural gas and other fossil fuels to supply steam, electricity and high-temperature heat to industrial applications.

Near-term deployment of an HTGR could significantly reduce process heat dependence on fossil fuels. These reactors could also increase long-term price protection against volatility in fossil fuel markets and increase energy security for large, capital intensive, and high production chemical production facilities.

Like the energy from more conventional LWRs, HTGR power costs will be stable and secure, insulating the industries from the volatility in natural gas pricing. Further, this competitive energy pricing will remain stable over the HTGR plant lifetime of several decades.

There is an environmental benefit as well. Every 750 MWt of installed HTGR capacity could avoid one million metric tons of CO2 emissions per year when compared to a similarly sized natural gas plant.

The use of HTGR technology in place of natural gas may also free up more of this domestic resource for more productive uses as feedstock for plastics and chemical manufacturing, creating multiples of GDP vs simply burning as fuel.

NGNP studies integrating the HTGR technology with petrochemical processes (e.g., production of ammonium and ammonium products, extraction of nonconventional crude, production of hydrogen). show that the HTGR technology could help reduce GHG emissions when compared with conventional processing.

Further, technical and economic analyses shows that HTGR technology used for co-generation of process heat and electricity is competitive with natural gas as in the $6 to $7 per MM BTU delivered price range.  This means it is competitive today in most of the world where natural gas is tied to oil parity (Europe, Japan, Korea, Middle East, etc) and likely to be in the U.S. in the time frame of its commercialization (2025+).   A  future price for carbon will make this technology even more competitive as it is estimated that for each $10 cost per ton of carbon, that the competitiveness of the HTGR will improve by $0.50 per MM BTU.  A $50 price for carbon, for example, makes the HTGR competitive with natural gas in the $2.50 to $4.50 per MM BTU range for process heat applications.

The NGNP Industry Alliance believes that the key economic drivers that have made HTGR technology of interest to industry are viable to today in most of the world and will continue to be viable in the future. The price of HTGR produced energy is competitive with alternative sources of energy across much of the globe and the Alliance believes it will be competitive in the U.S. at or near it time of commercialization. . Find out more … see www.ngnpalliance.org

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