Nuclear power in Alberta: prospects and challenges

Alberta is Canada’s biggest emitter of greenhouse gases (GHGs). Most emissions come from two activities: power generation, and oilsands mining and processing. Combined they emitted over 102 million tonnes of GHGs in 2004—43 percent of the provincial total, and over 13 percent of the Canadian total. This is because Alberta power generation is largely coal-fired, and the oilsands consume enormous amounts of natural gas. Both activities release enormous amounts of GHGs, from combusion and other processes. Could nuclear energy, which emits no GHGs, do some of the work that coal and natural gas do today?

Of course it could, but as in many things it is easier to talk about it than to actually do it. Let’s look at how nuclear energy could be used in power generation and oilsands.

Power generation. This is fairly straightforward. Nuclear powered steam generators could, and from an environmental point of view should, replace some of the coal-fired capacity that produces baseload power in Alberta. The nuclear advantage is huge amounts of zero-emission power from a relatively tiny piece of land.

Energy Alberta Corp. has already moved on this. The company found an ostensibly willing host community, which encouraged Bruce Power, Canada’s only private nuclear generating company, to acquire it in March 2008. The idea appears to be to build a large power reactor, possibly an AECL CANDU or ACR, and sell electricity to the Alberta system. Bruce Power has filed an application for a site license with the nuclear regulator, and is proceeding with the consultations required for an Environmental Assessment.

Oilsands. Oilsands emissions come by way of two major activities. First, oilsands mining requires vast amounts of steam, to separate oil from the sand. Currently most of that steam is produced by burning natural gas. Second, the heavy oil has to be further reformed with hydrogen. Most hydrogen is manufactured using a process called Steam Methane Reformation (SMR), in which natural gas is both a fuel and feedstock (SMR releases CO2 as a process byproduct).

Nuclear energy could provide the steam for both mining and hydrogen production (via conventional or steam electrolysis, whichever is more efficient). Since water is the feedstock for electrolysis, there is none of the process CO2 that goes with SMR.

Now: how viable is nuclear in the oilsands? The original Energy Alberta proponents claimed that a nuclear reactor on the scale of the (now defunct?) ACR 700 would be suitable for bitumen recovery. Given the declining surface oilsands deposits—and the increasing importance of in situ recovery techniques like SAG-D, for which smaller and more mobile steam generation units would be more appropriate—how viable would large reactors be? (Moreover, the only reactor currently under review by the Canadian regulator is the ACR 1000.)

The “nuclear battery” concept has been promoted to address exactly this issue. Small nuclear reactors such as the Hyperion, which is about the size of an SUV, could conceivably be effectivly deployed to supply steam for in situ bitumen recovery. But this raises complex regulatory issues. There are many mobile nuclear reactors in the world today. The U.S. alone has around sixty of them, in nuclear-powered aircraft carriers and submarines. But no western civilian regulator has experience with them.

How would the Canadian regulator deal with the nuclear battery concept, especially in an oilsands application? I’ll deal with this in upcoming posts. Stay tuned.

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14 years ago

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