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Can Nuclear Power “Decarbonize” the Oil and Gas Industry?
Felicity Bradstock

Governments and private companies worldwide have been exploring the idea of reducing emissions from oil operations by using nuclear energy. There is increasing pressure for oil and gas firms to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions to support a global green transition and reduce the effects of climate change on the environment, yet this can be extremely difficult to achieve. Much of the focus has been on retroactive carbon-capture operations, using carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology. Many environmentalists believe that the retroactive approach does not make a meaningful change and that fossil fuel companies must reduce their production rates, as well as decarbonise operations at the source. In response, companies worldwide are exploring the potential for nuclear energy to power operations to reduce the emissions created during production and processing activities. 

While there is a plethora of environmental issues related to fossil fuel production, there is significant potential to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions associated with oil and gas operations. Oil and gas production, transport, and processing contribute around 15 percent of all energy-related greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. The use of oil and gas accounts for another 40 percent of emissions. While it is extremely difficult to reduce these emissions, using clean energy sources to power upstream oil and gas facilities could help companies decarbonise some of their activities. 

At present, most companies rely on fossil fuels to power upstream operations, such as extracting gas and oil through drilling, pumping, and fracking. Many downstream operations, such as refining and processing, also use fossil fuels. Aline des Cloizeaux, the Director of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) Division of Nuclear Power, stated: “Most oil and gas operations burn fossil fuels to produce the energy needed for their upstream and downstream operations.” She added, “To drive down carbon emissions from these processes, ideally drilling, natural gas liquefaction and refining would be electrified with low carbon sources, such as nuclear.”

Most oil and gas operations are conducted in remote locations, making it difficult to power activities using electricity from the grid. However, there is significant potential to use microreactors (MRs) or small modular reactors (SMRs) to deliver power to the site. While fossil fuel production will still create carbon emissions, the use of nuclear power to fuel operations can help significantly reduce operational emissions and prevent waste. While the MR and SMR industry is in its infancy, many governments and private companies are investing in the acceleration of this technology, with capacity expected to increase significantly by 2030. 

One company is taking the next step in using nuclear power to fuel oil and gas operations by signing an agreement to develop the necessary technology. Viaro Energy and newcleo, a clean nuclear technology developer, have signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) to forge a strategic partnership to decarbonise oil and gas infrastructure using nuclear technology. The MoU provides a strategy for decarbonising Viaro’s oil and gas operations with newcleo’s lead-cooled fast reactor (LFR) technology. Newcleo expects the equipment to be suitable for a range of locations as it is compact and easily transportable. The LFR will be powered using reprocessed spent fuel, produced from existing reactors, to reduce waste. 

Stefano Buono, the Chairman and CEO of newcleo, stated: “This is an exciting partnership and demonstrates the potential for newcleo’s technology to support industrial decarbonisation. The transition to net-zero will only be achieved by decarbonising not only the energy, transport and heat sectors but also energy-intensive and ‘hard to abate’ heavy industries.”

“Our technology means that, for the first time, nuclear reactors will provide decentralised, baseload, low-carbon energy to customers with enhanced safety and security of supply. Viaro’s pragmatic and forward-looking approach will help them to blaze a trail towards lower-carbon operations in the oil and gas sector and we are delighted to be partnering with them and to provide energy solutions to make their aims a reality,” he added. 

The use of the technology is expected to help decarbonise Viaro’s North Sea operations, where the company produces around 30,000 barrels of oil a year. The firm holds non-operated stakes at around 30 offshore assets in the U.K. and the Netherlands. Viajo also announced that it had invested in newcleo, although no more information was given. This year, London-based newcleo is aiming to become one of Europe’s highest-funded start-ups, seeking to raise $1.09 billion

As the oil and gas industry looks to decarbonise operations in line with rising government pressure and higher consumer expectations, nuclear power could provide the answer. While most fossil fuel production takes place in remote locations, making it difficult to power using clean electricity from the grid, there is significant potential for the rollout of MRs and SMRs to power operations. Although the technology is in its infancy, greater investment in the technology by oil and gas firms could ensure they are some of the first companies to get access to innovative nuclear reactors as they are rolled out. 

By Felicity Bradstock for




Felicity Bradstock is a freelance writer specialising in Energy and Finance. She has a Master’s in International Development from the University of Birmingham, UK.

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