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Oregon Nuclear Reactor Test for Hydrogen Production

In the past, I’ve talked about the possibility of using nuclear reactors to not only generate electricity but also to produce hydrogen as a byproduct. Critics of hydrogen cars point to brute force electrolysis of water being too energy intensive to make it financially viable (and of course this is for another discussion altogether).

But, one method that sidesteps this issue is the high-temperature cracking of water into hydrogen and oxygen. Research has begun at Oregon State University (OSU) upon a new breed of nuclear reactor that operates at temperatures exceeding 2,000 degrees, is 35 to 50-percent more energy efficient than the older reactors, is gas-cooled, avoiding meltdown issues, and will easily crack water and produce hydrogen at high temperatures.

Now, when I see the ads on television bolding claiming that nuclear energy is zero emissions, green energy, I say, “You’ve got to be kidding.” Make no mistake that there still will be spent nuclear waste that will need to be dealt with and disposed of in some shape or fashion.

But, if communities decide that they actually want nuclear reactors powering their regions, then we might as well make them as safe, efficient and effective as possible. OSU has received a $6 million grant to produce a one-quarter scale reactor to work out safety issues ahead of building the final large-scale reactor.

This will mostly likely play a significant role going forward with energy production in this country and large-scale hydrogen production as well.

About Hydro Kevin Kantola

Hydro Kevin Kantola
I'm a hydrogen car blogger, editor and publisher interested in documenting the history and the progression of hydrogen cars, vehicles and infrastructure worldwide.

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7 comments

  1. Hi Kevin,

    i just locked in after seeing your post about oregon nuclear test reactor for h2 production.

    I totally disagree with your last comment about nuclear energy will be most likely play a significant role for energy production and large-scale h2 production.

    This argument is just another intention to justify existance of nuclear energy by all menas, that means, trying to make believe that to produce large-scale hydrogen we will need the “emmission – free” nuclear energy.

    1.) It is well know that nuclear energy produces wordwide around 16 % of electricty, mostly in industrial, so-called developed countries. As electricity accounts for some 20% of final energy use, you can easily calculate that nuclear energy contributes with around 3 % (16% of 20% = 3,2 %) to the final energy use worldwide. Like nuclear energy is only around 30 % efficient, this accounts for around 6% of primary energy consumption worldwide.

    In the US, facts or quite similar: Nuclear accounts for around 20% of electricity, that means around 4 % of final energy (20% of 20% = 4%).
    To be able to double this figures in 25 years, it would be necessary (according to the international atomic energy agency) to built up around 1500 reactors worldwide (at the moment there are around 440 reactors installed), a figure that is likely not probable seeing the actual installations & tendencies.

    There is an interesting report from 2007 who figures actual state of nuclear energy out and also that nuclear contribution is becoming more and more less important.

    2.) Nuclear energy is absultely NOT emissionfree. Apart from radioactive disposals, there’s also a considerable CO2-emission equivalente to 30 -50 % of carbon dioxide emissions of a gas fired power plant of the the same size, mostly coming from uranium ore mining, fuel processing & transport originated by fossil fuels. The conversion process, taht is right, does not provoke CO2-emissions. These figures have been scientifically demonstrated:

    http://www.stormsmith.nl/

    3.) Nuclear energy is extremely expensive, thats the cause why utilities prefer installing gas or carbon fired power-plants because they can do that without the financial help and garantees of the state, because turn-back time can be like 5 – 10 years, in the nuclear case it is around > 15 years.
    All this costs normally do not include money necessary for dismanteling the plant and managment of radioactive waste, this is normally due to income of selling the elecricity.

    4.) Electrolysis of water is only ONE of very much possible ways to produce Hydrogen, in fact, a lot of times nobody mentions biomass / biological feedstock gasification, steam reforming of wet biomass, microbiological production and also solar thermal high temperature splitting of water by thermochemical cyles. Electrolysis in NOT the only CO2-free possibility, there are a lot of other (and maybe economically more feasable) possibilities.

    It would be great if in energy discussions people would try to discuss more based on facts and less on economcal interest and lobby – guided, this would help us to really recognize best solutions or best mixture of solutions.

    I hope you will go on with your site, i’m trying to follow all intersting news about hydrogen / fuel cells on your blog.

    Greeds from Spain,

    Dietmar

  2. admin

    I’m not advocating for nuclear energy. My position is that if enough people want new nuclear reactors for whatever reasons and they become a fact of life, we may as well do something more useful with them than create just electricity such as create hydrogen as well.

    My preference is that we go with renewable energy such as wind, solar, geothermal, etc. or other means like biomass to create hydrogen. But, I do like to discuss all methods of creating hydrogen even those methods that are not as popular as others.

  3. Hi,

    i didn’t believe either that you wanted advocating nuclear energy, that became clear in your article.

    In what i agreed is to analyze all possible options, but in a interest-free, not lobby guided way.

    What we see here in europe in the last years is that people do not discuss energy topics because of useful reasons but always because of certain, even not hidden interests.

    I’m an engineer, working a lot of years in R&D and i’m used to test , analyze and evaluate all possible options.

    But that is what media exactely not do. In case of nuclear energy, lobby wants us to believe that their form only is unpopular, but on the other hand it is the cheapest, the cleanest, the safest and, last but not least, the best solution.

    They exactely are not interested in search and discuss all solutions, this lobby tries to manipulate public opinion, including respresenting the “clean” hydrogen production based on nuclear energy as the solution.

    If it is that cheap, safe, clean like they say, why they are on the decline?

    Only because of unpopularity or because people don’t want nuclear energy?

    Surely not. Companies try to make decisions first of all of economical reasons, what wins are fast repaying solutions.

    Nuclear received in the 60’s and 70’s more goverment support than all other energy sources but 40 years after, without direct or indirect support from the governments, it is still not viable.

    Don’t get me wrong, ididn’t want to critize neither your article nor what you said in general.
    But i want people to see and open the eyes, to look behind decisions and news in media.

    Thanks, i want to encourage you to go on with tour excellent work contributing to form public opinion.

    best regards from Spain,

    Dietmar

  4. Nuclear power may become an unfortunate necessity but we should really be spending as much as possible developing solar alternatives.

    Dietmar is correct about the Gov’t subsidies. In a report made public in 1980 the Energy Information Administration of the DOE stated that the $37 BILLION(50 billion by the end of 1980=100 billion today) given to the nuclear industry seriously distorted the true cost of nuclear energy. Without out tax dollars our utility bills would have been then, conservativey 66 to 100% higher than they are now.

    Today it would cost over $3 billion to build a nuclear plant and would cost much more to operate than a fossil fuel plant. Also building many plants over the next 20 years or so to keep up with demand would generate so much CO2 that it would take 40 years just to break even on the CO2 emmisions and 40 years is longer than the typical life of the plant.

  5. It’s not fair to say that Nuclear power plants are not CO2 neutral due to
    mining because face it, coal is mined too. Burning coal is more environmentally damaging than nuclear fission of uranium. The
    problem with nuclear energy is that it has been politically put out of reach. Trojan in Oregon had a ridiculous cooling tower that it didn’t need at all
    simply because of the public. Trojan was closed because of the public.
    The only mistake I can think of at Trojan is that the reactor chamber
    was made of mild steel and had to be welded up constantly.
    The other problem was Westinghouse producing shoddy parts.

    Nuclear power in America has an impressive safety track record.

    Sealing nuclear waste containers so that the hydrogen gas builds up and
    breaches them is a bad idea, but the EPA mandated doing this. A better
    idea is to capture the hydrogen and use it in a hydrogen economy.

    Let’s not forget that some nuclear waste is useful in medicine. Cesium
    comes to mind. With waste reprocessing, the nuclear fuel supply can be
    extended and the total amount of waste can be reduced.

    Nuclear done right is safe and much gentler on the environment than
    burning coal is.

    People are afraid of anything nuclear, but nuclear batteries have been used
    in pacemakers with no problems. With sixth generation reactor technology,
    a meltdown isn’t possible anymore.

    Burning coal releases all kinds of heavy metals into the air we breathe. Coal
    is not clean compared to nuclear. If the nuclear fuel isn’t enriched, there is
    less nuclear material after the nuclear reaction than before.

    The best solar panels are too expensive to be worth manufacturing and putting
    up. The cheapest solar collector is so inefficient that it is hardly worth it.

  6. admin

    Here are a couple of comments sent in by Dr. Alan Levin, a consultant in the nuclear power industry:

    I saw the item on your website, dated 2/10/09, concerning a “high temperature reactor” at Oregon State University. I want to point out that you have seriously mischaracterized the situation. Oregon State is NOT building a “one-quarter scale reactor.” Rather, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has given the university a 5-year, $6+ million grant to design, build, and operate a non-nuclear test facility to examine some aspects of the behavior of high temperature helium and materials that would be involved in an actual reactor. The facility will use electricity to provide the power to simulate the operation of the reactor. Further details are not available yet, because the test facility has not yet been designed.

    Dr. Levin goes onto say, after I point out the press release that the blog links to:

    I’m aware of the information in the press releases, which–unfortunately–also mischaracterized the facility. I spoke today with the Principal Investigator at OSU (Dr. Brian Woods), who confirmed that the releases were wrong, and said he was working with OSU’s public relations people to get them corrected. Dr. Woods presented a paper at a conference last year, discussing the facility, which is one of my information sources (aside from Dr. Woods himself, of course).

    Even if I did not have that paper–or had not spoken with Dr. Woods–it is clear from the discussion in the press releases and stories that the facility could not be a nuclear reactor, for the following reasons (among others):

    – It would cost far more than $6 million. (I’d estimate that a small reactor of this type would probably cost over $1 billion. That’s an off-the-cuff guess, but I think it’s the right ballpark.)

    – It would need to be licensed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

    – It would take far longer than 5 years to design, license, and build a reactor facility. Since it would be a first-of-a-kind facility in the U.S., such a reactor would like take at least 10-15 years to design the facility, prepare the licensing documentation, have the NRC review the documentation and issue a license, and build the facility.

    – Because of the magnitude of such a project and the associated regulatory requirements, it is far beyond the capabilities of a university to undertake on its own.

    Beyond that, the NRC does not build, or fund the building of, nuclear reactors. If it did, it would be a conflict of interest, since the agency would then be in the position of regulating a reactor that it built or paid for. (I worked for the NRC for 15 years.)

    Finally, I have no affiliation with Oregon State University now, and have not had one previously, except to the extent that I reviewed the work that was performed there in the 1990s in support of the design review of a Westinghouse reactor (the AP600), when I worked for the NRC. I am a nuclear engineer (doctorate from MIT), currently working for a company that designs nuclear power plants. I have about 29 years of experience in the nuclear power industry.

  7. /dalonces, on February 11th, 2009 at 9:25 am Said:

    /If it is that cheap, safe, clean like they say, why they
    are on the decline?
    /Only because of unpopularity or because people don’t want nuclear energy?

    The second is the cause of the first. Weak, unpopular governments balancing on the edge of electability (50%) know they will get brownie points with the mass of the uneducated general electorate if they will stop “the big, evil, bad nuclear wolf”

    /H2Mike, on February 12th, 2009 at 8:13 am Said:

    /Nuclear power may become an unfortunate necessity but we should really be spending as much as possible developing solar alternatives.

    /Dietmar is correct about the Gov’t subsidies. In a report made public in 1980 the Energy Information Administration of the DOE stated that the $37 BILLION(50 billion by the end of 1980=100 billion today) given to the nuclear industry seriously distorted the true cost of nuclear energy. Without out tax dollars our utility bills would have been then, conservativey 66 to 100% higher than they are now.

    That is pure nonsense. What you do not understand is that the DOE “subsidies to the nuclear industry” in fact are a facet of maintaining the nuclear research laboratories of sandia, lawrence livermore, oak ridge and other US government facilities which are used to maintaing the US nuclear weapons stockpile. Most of that money, in effect, went to the Military Industrial Complex, not the nuclear generation people.

    Also Mike, what you say about CO2 generation in building nukes is a straw man. The reason is that nukes have the lowest carbon emissions PER WATT GENERATED than any other source, barring large hydro. The reason is the manufacturing process, or in other words density of resources required.

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