Nuclear-based hydrogen is being produced in the US for the first time, at the Nine Mile Point nuclear power station in upstate New York — one of four pilot nuclear hydrogen plants that have received support from the US Department of Energy.

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The 1.9GW nuclear plant, run by local power producer Constellation Energy, uses hydrogen as a coolant, which had previously been trucked in and stored on-site.

It now diverts 1.25MW of its zero-carbon electricity to produce 560kg of pink hydrogen — more than enough to cover its needs — using a proton exchange membrane electrolyser supplied by Norwegian manufacturer Nel.

Hydrogen production at the plant began in February, according to press releases unveiled on Tuesday, although it had initially been due to start by the end of 2022.

The pilot project had a total price tag of $14.5m, with $5.8m of that coming from a US Department of Energy (DOE) grant in 2021.

Pink hydrogen has not yet been commercially produced at scale anywhere in the world, but there are two potential advantages to making hydrogen from nuclear power via electrolysers, compared to variable wind and solar.

The first is that nuclear reactors can power electrolysers around the clock, rather than only when the wind is blowing, or the sun is shining. So a 1GW nuclear plant should be able to produce five times as much hydrogen annually as a 1GW solar farm — up to 150,000 tonnes a year, according to the DOE.

The second is that high-temperature waste heat from the nuclear facility can be used to improve the efficiency of solid-oxide electrolysers, meaning that significantly higher amounts of H2 can be produced with the same amount of electricity — but Constellation did not choose this option.

However, there are two potential disadvantages of using nuclear power for hydrogen production: first, it tends to be very expensive compared to wind or solar; and second, it is already needed to help decarbonise the electricity grid, so diverting nuclear output to hydrogen production could be self-defeating in the fight against climate change.

“Hydrogen will be an indispensable tool in solving the climate crisis, and Nine Mile Point is going to show the world that nuclear power is the most efficient and cost-effective way to make it from a carbon-free resource,” said Constellation CEO Joe Dominguez.

“In partnership with DOE and others, we see this technology creating a pathway to decarbonizing industries that remain heavily reliant on fossil fuels, while creating clean-energy jobs and strengthening domestic energy security.”

Dr Kathryn Huff, assistant secretary for nuclear energy at the DOE, added: “This accomplishment tangibly demonstrates that our nation’s existing reactor fleet can produce clean hydrogen today.

“DOE is proud to support cost-shared projects like this to deliver affordable clean hydrogen. The investments we’re starting to make now through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and Inflation Reduction Act will further expand the clean hydrogen market to create new economic and environmental benefits for nuclear energy.”

The recently passed Inflation Reduction Act means that nuclear hydrogen would be eligible for tax credits of up to $3/kg — potentially making it an attractive proposition for reactor operators.

And up to $8bn has been made available under last year’s Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act for six to ten regional clean hydrogen production hubs across the country, with at least one to use nuclear power.

To Hydrogen Insight’s knowledge, there has only been one commercial sale of pink hydrogen to date, with very small quantities sold by Swedish operator OKG to industrial gases giant Linde from the Oskarshamn 3 power station in southeast Sweden.

“Traditional and advanced nuclear reactors are well-suited to provide this constant heat and electricity needed to produce clean hydrogen, which could open new markets for nuclear power plants,” said the Department of Energy in a statement last year.