Size Matters: Small Nuclear Reactors and Alberta’s Oil Sands Development

Earlier today, Denise Carpenter, President and CEO of the Canadian Nuclear Association, gave a presentation at the Oil Sands Infrastructure Summit in Calgary. The presentation focused on developing and maintaining a sustainable oil sands infrastructure, and on the role nuclear technology can play in achieving that objective.

President & CEO of the CNA – Denise Carpenter

The Canadian Nuclear Association represents all nuclear technologies in Canada.  The tens of thousands of Canadians whose jobs are connected to those technologies work in nuclear power generation, nuclear medicine, pharmaceuticals, food safety, materials science, engineering, science and technology services, and many other areas.

We believe that small modular reactor technology represents a unique and discrete change in the possibilities for applying nuclear energy in the oil sands.

SMR technology creates an opportunity for Alberta to show the world that you have the courage and commitment to live up to your vision.

Small Modular Reactors: How Small Is Small?

The acronym SMRs originally referred to Small and Medium Reactors, where “small” was defined to be less than 300 megawatts of electricity and “medium” reactors to be between 300 and 700 megawatts. The SMRs of interest in the oil sands typically fall into the “very small” range.

Why Small Nuclear for the Oil Sands?

At this point you may wonder why I think nuclear is a good fit for the oil sands. After all, haven’t there been a number of studies that seem to suggest that it’s not?  Well, the problem with these studies is that they were looking at the wrong size reactors.

Large reactors present a challenge for use in the oil sands. These include, among other things:

  • Large, permanent installations with high capital cost;
  • Large support staff with high operation and maintenance costs;
  • Relatively short maintenance and/or refueling cycles;
  • Excessive energy production (thermal & electric);  and,
  • Concerns about whether the steam is of adequate temperature and pressure.

To our knowledge, there have not been any comparable studies of SMRs for the oil sands. However, very preliminary evaluations that have been carried out by some in the nuclear industry suggest that SMRs can overcome these shortcomings and that they provide a vastly better match for Steam-assisted gravity drainage (SAGD).

The Hydrocarbon Value Chain
Today, most bitumen production is from in-situ processes, and of these, the SAGD process is the fastest growing. The SAGD process uses high-temperature, high-pressure steam for extraction of the bitumen from the oil sands, and for the most part this steam is currently generated using natural gas.

 

–    Quote Source: Oil Sands Technology Roadmap.

 

Reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions

Possibly the most critical issue that has stimulated interest in using nuclear power to produce steam for the SAGD process rather than natural gas is the growing concern over greenhouse gas emissions.

At present it takes up to 30 cubic meters of natural gas to produce a barrel of oil.  With projections of three million barrels per day by 2016, a great deal of natural gas will be required.

Quite apart from the question of gas availability, this has major CO2 implications.  Essentially, the equivalent of about 20% of the energy in the oil is required to produce it and about 80 kilograms of CO2 is released for every barrel of oil produced.

This is even before refining begins – and without even talking about a price on carbon.  If any substantial price were put on carbon, we could be talking about a very great deal of money indeed in this context.

Nuclear power generation is an important part of a clean energy solution for Canada as it produces virtually no greenhouse gas emissions.  The emissions are actually zero from the heat generation process itself, but we say “virtually no emissions” because building and servicing any plant still requires using trucks, equipment and so on that do emit some greenhouse gases.

How clean is nuclear compared to the alternatives?  Well, it has been calculated that the use of nuclear power generation instead of coal avoids about 90 million tonnes per year of GHG emissions.  And nuclear is a strategy for making that kind of change in the oil sands.

Click here for the the full speech (PDF).

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