Select Committee on Environmental Audit Written Evidence

Memorandum submitted by British Nuclear Fuels PLC (BNFL)

  While carbon emissions from industry and the electricity generation sector have been falling, they have risen steadily in the transport sector. Indeed recent figures[5] show that energy consumption in the transport sector doubled between 1970 and 2004, with the aviation sector showing the strongest growth—a trebling of energy consumption over the same period.

  Since transport is still dominated by petroleum fuels, this growth in energy consumption represents a sustained increase in carbon emissions, even accounting for the improvements in vehicle efficiency, and is one of the reasons why UK emissions are now rising in spite of commitments to reduce them substantially over the coming decades.

  Transport continues to be a major growth sector, and is expected to remain so. This upward trend must therefore be addressed urgently if the UK is going to achieve its long term emission reduction objectives. However, the transport sector is built around fossil fuels, so technological change is likely to take many years—even decades—to have a major impact. We therefore urge the Committee to take a long-term approach to the issue of carbon emissions from transport.


A switch to a hydrogen economy will increase demand for electricity, which emphasises the need to increase the generation share of nuclear and renewables.

  Making public transport more attractive can help reduce demand, but personal transport is likely to remain significant. A step change in the transport sector will be needed at some point, to move away from the internal combustion engine if major reductions in greenhouse gas emissions are to be achieved. As part of the hydrogen economy, the hydrogen fuel cell offers the potential over coming decades to eliminate greenhouse gases and other harmful emissions.

  Moving to a hydrogen economy could generate an enormous demand for hydrogen fuel. This could be produced from electrolytic dissolution of water, by steam reforming or else by direct chemical dissociation at high temperature. To keep life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions low, renewables and nuclear should be used to supply any electricity required. (If the high temperature route is chosen, future high temperature reactors would be a particularly effective means of achieving these temperatures.) But, if producing sufficient electricity for conventional usage while reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 60-80% is challenging, then the potentially huge additional requirements for large-scale hydrogen emphasise the need to use both renewables and nuclear energy. Effective large-scale production would require continuous baseload power, which is best supplied by nuclear means.

  In this respect, the partnership of a hydrogen economy driven primarily by nuclear power represents a win/win situation. When consumer demand for electricity is high, nuclear can operate reliably to generate large amounts of baseload power, and when consumer demand falls away (eg overnight) the nuclear electricity can be diverted to produce substantial quantities of clean hydrogen for distribution to vehicle power systems.

  Such an approach also helps renewable technologies overcome the issues of variable output. A switch to a hydrogen economy, using low-carbon electricity for hydrogen production, will have the benefit of disconnecting the end user demand from the time of electricity production. Hydrogen fuel will be, in essence, an energy storage medium. One of the key challenges associated with renewable generation may be removed if hydrogen production plant can utilise an intermittent and variable electricity input.

  Using electricity for hydrogen production could also help support a higher level of nuclear generation capacity. Nuclear plant run best in baseload mode—which would be ideal for large-scale hydrogen production. Nuclear plant can be built to power hydrogen production plants round the clock at the very high availability that modern plant offers.

February 2006

5   UK Energy Sector Indicators 2005; DTI, July 2005 Back

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