Nuclear energy is an excellent source of process heat for various industrial applications, including district heating, seawater desalination, oil refining and the production of hydrogen with ensuing processes for synthetic and unconventional oil production and applications in the fertilizer or steel industry.1 As such, nuclear cogeneration offers an innovative solution to the dual challenge of mitigating CO2 emissions, while at the same time securing the supply of energy at an affordable and predictable price for European industry. These benefits resulted in nuclear cogeneration being listed as a key low-carbon technology in the EU’s Strategic Energy Technology Plan (SET-Plan), which called for the first co-generation reactors to be built in the 2020s as demonstration projects to test the technology for coupling with industrial processes.2
The potential of nuclear power as a source of process heat was confirmed by several market studies. The Sustainable Nuclear Energy Technology Platform (SNETP) has recognized nuclear cogeneration as one of its three technology pillars. Under the SNETP umbrella, the European Nuclear Cogeneration Industrial Initiative (NC2I) has been set up with the aim of demonstrating an innovative, safe and competitive energy solution for the low-carbon cogeneration of heat and electricity based on nuclear energy. NC2I targets all low-, medium- and high-temperature non-electric applications of nuclear energy such as district heating, the production of chemicals and petrochemicals, and hydrogen production or steel manufacturing. Today, the most significant near-term market potential lies in process steam production (< 600°C) where as much as 87 GWth of fossil cogeneration could be replaced in EU28 countries alone.
Because light water reactors produce heat at relatively low temperatures, the applications are limited to district heating, seawater desalination and the paper and pulp industry. This nuclear cogeneration technology is well established and a reality in several European countries, with very positive records compared to fossil-fired cogeneration. For higher efficiency and broader application options the international technology development focuses on intrinsically safe high-temperature gas-cooled reactors (HTR/HTGR) delivering heat at over 700°C or any other suitable nuclear technologies as they mature. HTGR have been successfully proven in Germany, the United Kingdom, the USA, Japan and China. The JRC started in 2000 the High Temperature Reactor Technology Network (HTR-TN) which launched many European R&D projects to update HTR technology in Europe. HTR-TN merged with SNETP in 2010 and was the precursor of NC2I. This experience, coupled with the research effort currently being undertaken, means that Europe has a competitive competency in HTR technology which could help reinvigorate both its nuclear and end-user industry while at the same time meeting energy policy goals such as emission reduction and security of supply.
NC2I aims to commission a nuclear cogeneration prototype to facilitate further deployment of this low-carbon energy technology in several energy-intensive industries. NC2I can rely on a sound technological background acquired during the German HTR program and with a significant number of EU technology development projects since 1998 (HTR project cluster, RAPHAEL, ARCHER). To achieve demonstration, a taskforce has been set up within SNETP, bringing together energy intensive companies, technology developers, utilities, engineering companies, universities and research centres. Furthermore, the European project NC2I-R ("Nuclear Cogeneration Industrial Initiative - Research") has been launched in October 2013 with the aim of defining the legal structure of the initiative and optimizing its activities. This two-year project with a budget of over EUR 2.5 million, of which the European Union is contributing EUR 1.8 million, currently conducts mapping and gap analysis activities to identify requirements in terms of infrastructure and competences. NC2I-R focuses on end-user needs and deployment scenarios, involving development of economic and business models, site mapping, and development of demonstrator specifications.
End-user group relations and establishing strategic partnerships with key players was also one of the main objectives of the earlier EUROPAIRS3 project - a networking and road-mapping action on nuclear cogeneration, in which the Joint Research Centre - the European’s Commission’s in-house science service, acted as a research partner. This project, which wound up its work in May 2011, aimed to establish the boundary conditions of future nuclear cogeneration systems connected to industrial processes, including safety, operating conditions and the various coupling options with industrial processes. This project was performed as an important step to specify a demonstrator in line with the requirements of heat consumers. The project also conducted a safety analysis of the nuclear heat source and its interface with an industrial facility, which will enhance the design and facilitate the licensing of the demo plant.
The information produced was then used to develop a demonstration model, which showed that the concept was economically and technologically viable in the medium term. Another output from the project was a roadmap for the communication and future deployment of the nuclear cogeneration strategy. EUROPAIRS concluded that with relatively little technological development, nuclear cogeneration is a feasible strategy for power and heat generation. Speaking at the fourth SNETP General Assembly in Vilnius in October 2013, Marek Tarka, co-chair of the NC2I Task Force confirmed the EUROPAIRS findings about the significant market potential of nuclear cogeneration in Europe and beyond.
For the NC2I initiative to become successful, several conditions need to be met. These include finding a host country for the demonstrator, which will require political commitment, national participation in project funding, societal acceptance and an appropriate site.
Several arguments can help to secure the necessary political support. For example, a 600 MWth HTR plant will save annually 1 million tons of CO2 compared to natural gas firing and 2 million tons compared to coal firing.4 The involvement of end users and of a nuclear operator is also a prerequisite. Funding is also a key issue, as the demonstration project is expected to cost EUR 3 - 5 billion. There is unlikely to be a significant funding commitment from end users for design and licensing work and R&D support for these activities, as the perceived financial risks are quite high, and the return on investment is long term. Consequently, European structural funds, national funds and international partnerships will play a key role. Funding will also be needed to build and operate the demonstrator, but here the future operator and end users are likely to play a greater role.
The next steps for NC2I are to use the results of the EUROPAIRS and NC2I-R projects to fine-tune its priorities. The initiative has recently engaged in international cooperation with the US NGNP Industry Alliance, with the overarching goal of commercialising HTGR technology and expanding the use of clean and safe nuclear energy in industrial applications while reducing dependence on fossil fuels. NC2I is open to involvement of further SNETP members to strengthen the initiative and to ensure that this SNETP pillar plays an adequate role in the decarbonisation of the European energy sector and in ensuring the security of energy supply to Europe’s energy-intensive industries.
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2 COM (2009) 519