The announcement of renewed interest in building a nuclear power station in West Cumbria has caused a flurry of excitement about the prospect of new jobs and economic prosperity for the area.

The Moorside Consortium, made up of French energy firm EDF and a number of partners, has announced it hopes to build two EPR-type nuclear reactors in West Cumbria, which would form part of the Moorside Clean Energy Hub on land adjacent to Sellafield.

It is also hoped the hub will attract the development of small modular reactors, such as those being worked on by the UK SMR Consortium led by Rolls-Royce.

However, these would only be some of the potential reactors on site, with the vision also incorporating the development of high temperature gas cooled reactors, which can be used to generate heat and steam for domestic and industrial purposes, or to make fuels such as hydrogen or synthetic aviation fuel.

Professor Francis Livens, director of the University of Manchester’s Dalton Nuclear Institute - which has a facility on the Westlakes Science Park - says the reactors work in the same way as nuclear reactors that are used in power stations, but reach a much higher temperature.

For example, the reactors at Hinkley Point C, in Somerset, may reach somewhere around 350 degrees centigrade to generate steam to turn turbines and produce electricity.

“The engineering of that reactor really limits you to about 350 degrees centigrade,” said Francis.

“By high temperature nuclear you are usually talking about temperatures of 600 as a minimum or 700 or 800, possibly even hotter.

“You can’t cool them with water and they tend to be cooled with things like helium gas and so what you get out is this flow of helium gas at high temperatures.”

At such high temperatures it is possible to split water into hydrogen and oxygen.

Although it is also possible to use electrolysis to split water into hydrogen and oxygen using electricity from a lower temperature nuclear reactor, Francis says this is much less efficient than making use of the high temperature method.

“This is all really tied up with net zero and the recognition we need something other than hydrocarbon based fuel,” he said.

“Whether that is a different way of heating your house, whether it’s used to run your car, we will need to do something about carbon free fuels and there aren’t really that many options.

“But to do this on a big scale you need huge quantities of hydrogen.

“We get through 20 million tonnes a year of petrol and replacing that is going to need an awful lot of hydrogen.”

Hydrogen can also be blended with natural gas for domestic heating. Although high temperature reactors exist, Francis says it will still take some time to perfect the technology to produce hydrogen on an industrial scale.

"We are not going to go straight to high temperature nuclear and hydrogen because we don’t really know how to do it on a big scale,” he said.

For high temperature reactors to begin putting hydrogen into the energy network - either using large reactors or lots of smaller ones - a long process of research and development is still necessary to ensure they can do it effectively and safely.

“You iron out the problems and that would include how you actually build it and how do I physically separate something potentially explosive like hydrogen from something high hazard like a nuclear reactor,” said Francis.

In reality, he believes it may be the 2040s before the reactors are in use, although they could then make a big difference in helping reduce carbon emissions.

Ken McEwan, head of sectors for Cumbria Local Enterprise Partnership - and an engineer with more than 30 years experience working in the nuclear sector - says the use of high temperatures to create hydrogen is also being investigated in relation to small modular and advanced modular reactors.

“This could be combined with carbon, that might be captured from the atmosphere, and you can create a hydrocarbon synthetic fuel that can be used for transport like aviation,” he said

“That kind of process could be used to decarbonise aviation and used in existing jet engines without having to create new engine designs.”

However, he says the clean energy vision for Cumbria is about more than just nuclear.

“That includes offshore wind, it includes hydrogen and things like aviation fuel as spinoffs, but we’re also very interested in smaller scale developments to help local communities,” he said.