Embrace nuclear energy, Alberta: it’s the only way to lower oilsands GHGs

Alberta is panicking right now, fearing the worst when the U.S. makes its next decision on the Keystone Pipeline. If the new American secretary of state’s recent legislative past is an indicator, Keystone, which will carry Alberta bitumen to the U.S. gulf coast, will receive extra attention on the question of whether the proposed pipeline fits with the president’s stated climate change goals. After all, the most recent U.S. senate effort to reduce emissions of man-made carbon dioxide (CO2) was called the KGL Bill. The “K” stands for Kerry, as in John Kerry, who is now secretary of state. And the KGL Bill died an embarrassing death, in 2010. Will the new secretary of state use the Keystone issue to redress that failure, and help his boss keep an important—and so far unkept—environmental promise? Alberta worries he will.

Oil sands operation, Alberta Canada. This is Alberta’s cash cow and hope for the future, but that future is bleak because Alberta’s biggest customer, the United States of America, has singled Alberta oil out as “dirty.” The only way Alberta can clean it up is to use nuclear energy.

Alberta’s panic is underlined by the recent revelation that the province is considering upping its much touted and totally ineffectual $15 per ton “levy” on industrial CO2 to $40. This is the centrepiece of Alberta’s new climate goal: a 40 percent reduction in CO2.

Considering where most of Alberta’s CO2 emissions come from, a 40 percent reduction is huge. The two biggest category sources in Alberta’s official Greenhouse Gas inventory are power generation and the oil sands, which in 2008 emitted 55 million tons of CO2 and 41 million tons, respectively. (You can download Environment Canada’s National Inventory Report 1990-2008: Greenhouse Gas Sources and Sinks in Canada here; Alberta-specific information is on p. 118, or p. 119 of the PDF).

Alberta has been trying, in a PR kind of way, to reduce CO2 from power generation, which the province thinks is easier technologically than from the oil sands. This effort has focused mostly on carbon capture and sequestration, or CCS. Not surprisingly it has been a flop. The chemistry of the process is difficult: it involves separating CO2 from nitrogen (Alberta’s power plants are mostly coal-fired, and all use air, which is mostly nitrogen, as the source of combustion oxygen). That separation is inefficient and expensive.

The only ongoing CCS project in Alberta is Shell’s Quest project, which is not a power generation application but hydrogen generation for a bitumen upgrader (see article). The process separation of CO2 is far more favourable in the Shell project; this makes the project less uneconomic. A CO2 levy of $40 per tonne would improve the economics even more.

However, process CO2 from hydrogen manufacturing is not the main source of oil sands CO2. The main source by far is from heat generation: heat is produced by burning natural gas. And capturing CO2 from that is as difficult and uneconomic as it is in coal-fired power generation. That is because, as in coal generation, heat generation by burning natural gas uses air as the oxygen source.

There is only one source of viable zero-carbon heat on this planet. That is nuclear fission. Alberta has pretended to objectively look at nuclear before, only to pull the plug in the face of uninformed opposition from environmentalists and self-styled energy experts.

But the province should take a second look. And if that is not enough, a third one. Ontario nuclear plants are, right this second, generating enough energy to power the entire province of Alberta, without emitting a gram of CO2. Nuclear should be powering Alberta too, and powering the oil sands. Table 1 on the left hand sidebar shows Ontario’s grid electricity sources from the last hour. And Table 2 gives an idea of the sheer amount of CO2 that comes from gas-fired power generators every day; gas-fired power is supposed to be clean. Nuclear, as you can see, emits zero CO2.

Alberta could achieve bigger reductions than 40 percent, if it embraced nuclear. So the question is, how badly does it want American business?

17 comments for “Embrace nuclear energy, Alberta: it’s the only way to lower oilsands GHGs

  1. James Greenidge
    April 5, 2013 at 2:18 pm

    Good article. How predisposed is Alberta’s population towards nuclear?

    James Greenidge
    Queens NY

    • April 5, 2013 at 2:24 pm

      James, Alberta’s population appears generally skeptical of nuclear. A few years ago Bruce Power stepped up with a plan for an ACR-1000. It received little support from the powers-that-be, and Bruce gave up. With no nuclear base in the province, there has been little incentive for nuclear proponents to do much outreach there. That has been to everyone’s detriment, when you consider today’s situation.

  2. Joffan
    April 5, 2013 at 2:25 pm

    Ha. Imagine the green protests. Never mind the rational carbon emissions argument, just look at the slogans.

    Nuclear tar-sands!

    Surely there must be way to use genetically-engineered bacteria too?

    • April 7, 2013 at 10:38 am

      Per the Alberta provincial web site, I see that the province has a bit over 11 GW of fossil-fired generating capacity.

      I don’t have info on the gas consumption of the tar sands operations (and gas has no substitute for upgrading of bitumen to syncrude) but this suggests a way to de-carbonize Alberta’s grid almost completely:

      1.  Build a fleet of 16 CANDU-6′s or so.  Perhaps one or two could be located at the tar sands sites themselves, but most should be at the existing population centers.

      2.  Connect the tar sands operations to the rest of the grid with a fat HVDC line, maybe two.

      3.  Run the CANDUs flat out most of the time, and use electric heaters in the tar sands as dump loads.  You wouldn’t even need spinning reserve because you could dump a few hundred megawatts of load within a half-cycle and not have to worry about bringing it back on-line for minutes or hours.

      The tables currently list 938 MW of gas-fired capacity in Ontario, generating 514 tph of CO2.  That’s 0.548 t/MWH; at $40/ton CO2 fee, that would cost about 2.2¢/kWh over and above the gas price.  Figure about 0.9¢/kWh for raw heat.  Maybe 2¢/kWh total?

      If CANDUs can make money selling half their output at TOD retail and the other half at 2¢/kWh interruptible rate, Alberta could go nuclear and never look back.

      • April 7, 2013 at 12:53 pm

        Something I forgot:  a nuclear Alberta would be able to sell its natural gas, instead of consuming it for process heat and hydrogen.

  3. crf
    April 5, 2013 at 5:04 pm

    I think I posted about this on this site previously, but during the Alberta PC leadership debate, all the potential candidates, including Redford, where asked about their support for developing Nuclear energy in Alberta, and all of them had bad things to say about it. I copy/pasted a totally unformatted copy of the debate’s text, which used to be on the Calgary Herald’s website. (http://fahlmanc.blogspot.ca/ it’s on my “blog”, which isn’t a blog, but more just a repository of junk I want to keep.)

    Redford said in response to whether Alberta require Nuclear power that “No. We do not require nuclear power in Alberta.”

    And in response to the question “what are your reasons for opposing nuclear power in Alberta?”, Redford said: “We do not need it. And Albertans are, justifiably, afraid of it.”

    • James Greenidge
      April 6, 2013 at 6:58 am

      Times like this that you REALLY regret more celebs aren’t out the nuke closet, and the far too premature passing of Paul Newman after his nuclear conversion via the excellent crew at the Millstone nuclear plant! Highly regarded Paul could been beyond a mere nuclear Carl Sagan! (sigh!). If I won the lottery, among some civic things. I’d grind out a weekly newsletter to every Alberta household about this new study on how nuclear saves mega lives over fossil; Rod Adam’s excellent expose of top anti-nuclear activists, and the health/safety hypocrisy environmentalists have against nuclear power, added with Steve’s fine and relevant article on how Toronto runs clean on nukes — a fact I think even its denizens don’t fully appreciate.

      James Greenidge
      Queens NY

  4. Todd
    April 6, 2013 at 9:51 am

    Great article, hopefully, the full length documentary “Pandora’s Promise”, is a huge success. http://www.pandoraspromise.com The “Director’s Note” page well worth the 2 minute read.

  5. Steve Coupland
    April 8, 2013 at 8:26 am

    Steve
    Just to clarify, it wasn’t public skepticsm and environmentalists that caused Bruce Power to withdraw rather the business case wasn’t there. The price of natural gas dropped dramatically and there was not enough of a price on carbon to ecourage any of the large users to agree to a long-term fixed price contract which is necessary to get financing. The Alberta government and the public (especially in the Peace river area)were supportive. I remain convinced that Alberta will ultimately need nuclear power it is just a case of when the business case (whether thru an increase in price of gas or an increase in the price of carbon) makes the economics work

    • April 8, 2013 at 8:42 am

      Steve, thanks — yes the government and public were supportive, and that is due to both excellent outreach by Bruce Power and Alberta proponents and recognition by the government of the size of the carbon problem. Of all provincial governments in Canada, Alberta is probably the most attuned to the zero-carbon nature of nuclear. By “pretended” I was referring more to those who pooh-poohed the business case for nuclear while promoting that for CCS from coal-fired power.

      • Duane Bratt
        April 8, 2013 at 1:47 pm

        Steve,
        Read Chapter 7 of my book Canada, the Provinces, and the Global Nuclear Revival. It was natural gas prices that led to Bruce Power leaving. Despite no nuclear base in the province, the population and govt was/is more willing to pursue nuclear technology than many others (BC, Quebec, etc).

        • April 9, 2013 at 7:18 am

          Duane, thanks, I’ll check out your book. There is no doubt that potential for nuclear power in Alberta exists — in spite of high-level reluctance in the top two parties in the last provincial election — and could become even more significant if that $40 levy ever sees the light of day. Obviously there is not much support for that levy in the upper levels of oil sands (see this article in today’s Globe).

          As I suggest, it all hinges on Keystone. A negative U.S. decision would really shake things up in Canada’s energy industry, and could actually lead to a $40 levy. That would improve the relative economics of nuclear versus coal for power generation and nuclear versus gas for oil sands operations.

    • seth
      April 8, 2013 at 2:53 pm

      All that government support evaporated with the crowning of the new zero science premier Redford.

      Alberta is a live for the moment culture obsessed with pickup trucks. toyhaulers, rye and coke. The last time any of them thought more than a month ahead was under Peter Lougheed who proposed refining the Tar at home. Gee I bet they wished they’d listened to him back then.

      Alberta is building new coal plants at LCOE’s many times higher than nuclear as well as gas plant at similar cost. Off peak Gen III+ nuclear would be cheaper than gas as a heat source

      SCANA proved quite conclusively that as an electricity producer the AP-1000 is competitive with gas. And the waste heat certainly can be used for tar sands ops.

      Here are two Gen IV proposals for Tar Sands nukes. Toshiba is looking at CNSC approvals.

      Google “David LeBlanc – Molten Salt Reactor Designs, Options & Outlook”

      Google “Toshiba nuclear tar sands”

  6. Jeff Walther
    April 8, 2013 at 3:43 pm

    It’s too bad Alberta isn’t next door to Ontario. Bruce could build several nukes on or near the border, sell the electricity to Alberta, and Ontario could reap the benefits. Of course Alberta would benefit too, just not as much as if they showed some foresight.

  7. Tim
    April 9, 2013 at 6:37 pm

    A couple of thoughts on what has gone politically and technologically.

    1. Five years Alberta thought it was on the verge of becoming the “Big Dog” province of Canada and there would be a steady stream of all of the major Canadian companies leaving Ontario for Alberta. However, the McGuinty/Wynne Ontario provincial Liberal party made several significant changes in policy primarily in tax but also in energy that has negated a lot of what Alberta used to call the “Alberta advantage” over Ontario and Toronto.

    2. Given everyone in Alberta thought the were on the verge of becoming the “big dog” of Canada the newfound competitiveness of Ontario is shall we say a bit of a lit down for Alberta.

    3. No one in Alberta ever saw the delays in Keystone coming. Hell no one in Ottawa really saw them either.

    4. The four refineries in Ontario(three in Sarnia one in Nanticoke) are making out like gangbusters. They have access to this huge glut of crude oil from Alberta they can refine into gasoline and diesel at world markets prices and send to the GTA. Even when the four Ontario refineries are run at full capacity the GTA(Greater Toronto) still requires imports of gas and diesel by pipeline and barge from Montreal(provided at world market price). So the marginal price the Ontario refineries get despite being landlocked as that of the waterborne petroleum market.

    5. Despite the fact Ontario motorists don’t see any price relief at the gas station the financial performance of the in province refineries as helping to stabilize industrial employement during a time when many have been concerned about industrial/manufacturing layoffs.

    • Tim
      April 9, 2013 at 6:44 pm

      This is also an area where there is a bit world political asymmetry between the US and Canada. In the US the most pro nuclear parts of the country of the Southeast such as Georgia, South Carolina, Alabama etc which happen to be the most conservative parts of the US. Alberta is the most conservative part of Canada yet happens to be anti nuclear(not as much as BC though which truly takes the cake). Ontario is perceived as the most Liberal part of Canada yet is the most pro nuclear. The northeast US and California are some of the most anti nuke areas of the US.

      One interesting possibility is Saskatchewan has a big uranium mining industry and has always claimed to want to move up the nuclear supply chain. The problem is it has been hard to justify a full CANDU unit in Saskatchewan given local power demand. Perhaps this might be changing. Cameco which is based in Regina is actually a part owner of Bruce Power. Saskatchewan is also heavy coal but again has much smaller economy than Alberta so it gets less public attention.

  8. Andrew Jaremko
    April 10, 2013 at 9:38 pm

    Steve and all the commenters – thanks for your contributions. I’m an Albertan (born in Calgary and lived here all my life) and I’m completely on board with using nuclear fission for nearly all of our primary energy. We need high temperature reactors for industrial heat as well for as electricity generators.

    @Seth – Thanks for mentioning Dr. David LeBlanc. I trimmed the video of his presentation at the Thorium Energy Alliance Conference, Molten Salt Reactor Designs, Options & Outlook @ TEAC4 to the 5 minute segment in which he discusses SAGD for the oil sands: Molten Salt Reactors, Canada, and the Athabasca Oil Sands.

    @Dr. Bratt – thanks! I hadn’t heard of your book. Searching for it turned up a CBC Radio reference to an interview you did in January 2011 – but unfortunately it won’t play!

    I’m a member of Toastmasters and have been giving a speech titled ‘Fuel Rich Future’ as a test speech during the current round of Toastmasters contests. In the speech I say that we can bring everyone in the world up to our (Canadian) energy use ‘using the nuclear fuels uranium and thorium.’ At first I was expecting a shocked gasp from the groups, but I have yet to see any reflexive negative reaction. Last Monday, following my speech, the Toastmaster interviewed me for five minutes (while the contestants were preparing their evaluations of my speech) and the audience definitely wanted to hear more. The speech is getting better and so far I’ve been in front of 70 to 100 people with it.

    Did you happen to see Kirk Sorensen when he was at MRU March 31 2011? Gordon McDowell’s video of the speech is Kirk Sorensen @ MRU on LFTR – Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactors.

    Thanks again everyone for the comments. We really need visionary political and business leadership, and longer-term thinking.

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