Tech Insights

Is Hydrogen’s Future Powered by Nuclear?

September 15, 2023 by Jane Marsh

Hydrogen energy holds much potential in clean energy but is woefully underutilized. While hydrogen fuel cells are quite clean, the process of extracting hydrogen largely isn’t – but it can be with the help of nuclear power.

Hydrogen could play a key role in the clean energy transition, but it’s lagged behind other technologies. While fuel cells are more efficient than battery-electric power and produce no carbon emissions, extracting hydrogen is another matter.


Nuclear power plant.

Nuclear power plant. Image used courtesy of Adobe Stock


Despite being the most abundant element, hydrogen doesn’t appear on its own in nature. It must be separated from chemical bonds with other elements, and that process usually relies on fossil fuel-derived energy. Nuclear power could be the solution.


The Potential of Nuclear Power for Hydrogen

As of 2022, low-emissions processes accounted for less than 1% of global hydrogen production, according to the International Energy Administration. Much of the world’s hydrogen comes from methane, producing greenhouse gases as a byproduct. Electrolysis – extracting hydrogen from water with electricity – is more eco-friendly, but most electricity comes from fossil fuels.

Nuclear power can remove greenhouse gases from hydrogen production in two primary ways. The most straightforward is to power electrolysis through nuclear-derived electricity. Nuclear-powered electrolysis would provide carbon-free hydrogen power because fission produces no greenhouse gas emissions.

The other way nuclear fission could provide clean hydrogen energy is through thermochemical water splitting. Thermochemical splitting uses high heat instead of electricity to separate water’s hydrogen and oxygen atoms. Nuclear reactors generate considerable waste heat, providing a convenient means to produce emissions-free hydrogen in fewer steps than electrolysis.


Nuclear vs. Renewables for Hydrogen Production

Of course, nuclear isn’t the only energy source that could provide emissions-free hydrogen. Solar and wind installations could power electrolysis, too, and are proliferating. Some energy companies add multiple gigawatts of renewable energy to the grid annually, making renewable-derived hydrogen more viable.


Some initiatives prefer solar and wind over nuclear.

Some initiatives prefer solar and wind over nuclear. Image used courtesy of Adobe Stock


Some clean energy initiatives prefer solar and wind over nuclear because nuclear energy technically isn’t renewable. Uranium – while abundant – is a finite resource, unlike the wind and the sun. Nuclear reactor failures in the past also cast a shadow over these facilities’ safety.

At the same time, nuclear has several advantages over solar and wind power. Even though nuclear energy is technically nonrenewable, its current supply can sustain humanity for billions of years, so that’s not likely an issue. Uranium pellets are also recyclable and can continue to produce energy after recycling.

Nuclear energy doesn’t require as much physical space. A typical nuclear facility only requires one square mile of land to operate, according to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). Wind and solar can take up to 360 and 75 square miles, respectively. As a result, expanding nuclear power to produce clean hydrogen contributes to less habitat loss than wind and solar farms. These advantages and the possibility of thermochemical splitting make nuclear a consideration for hydrogen production.


Nuclear-Derived Hydrogen Today and Tomorrow

Given this potential, energy organizations should consider how they can develop the appropriate infrastructure to derive clean hydrogen from nuclear power. Developing efficient thermochemical production methods and connecting electrolysis equipment to nuclear power plants should take priority.

Several nuclear-derived hydrogen projects are already underway. The DOE supports at least three nuclear power plants aiming to produce clean hydrogen. At least one of these already generates hydrogen, which will supply power to the grid through fuel cells by 2025. The others intend to start hydrogen production by 2024 at the latest.

The primary technological challenge lies in bringing fuel costs down. While the technology to fuel hydrogen production through nuclear energy already exists, it’s expensive to build and operate. Engineers must find ways to scale the technology and minimize these expenses for it to be viable on a larger scale. Wind and solar faced similar challenges years ago but are now among the cheapest energy sources, so this issue will fade with time and research.


Nuclear Could Give Hydrogen the Boost It Needs

Hydrogen power is an important part of the clean energy puzzle, but only if the world can produce it without carbon emissions. With further development, nuclear energy could be the answer to that problem.

Nuclear power is clean, resource-efficient, and scalable, making it an option for emissions-free hydrogen. Development in this technology today could fuel the power grids of tomorrow.