Tag Archives: Oil Sands

Nuclear Energy Nuclear Outreach

Nuclear in the Oil Sands: Building On Canada’s Strengths

Canada has high-quality uranium deposits and a highly developed base of nuclear technologies, including power generation, medicine, food safety, mining and processing, and materials science – in all of which Canadians have done well, as innovators and as businesses.

That Canadian power reactor designs have been sold in six other countries — against substantial US, Japanese and European competition — is a remarkable technological and commercial success story, especially considering that they were developed and marketed independently by a small country, and only for civilian uses.  Management of this business has passed to Candu Energy Inc., and Canadians will soon see what private industry can do with this opportunity given the current nuclear revival, which is being led by emerging economies.

There are diverse examples of nuclear energy being used for process heat applications such as smelting minerals and desalinating seawater.   And today there are various new nuclear reactor technologies available or on the horizon (Generation III and IV reactors, small modular reactors and others) that promise to make nuclear power options even safer than they currently are, as well as easier to finance.

The development of the oil sands has repeatedly faced difficult technical and economic challenges.  While private industry was the main driver and investor, public sector actors played a significant role.  Backed by industry consensus and assisted by economic policy through such measures as royalty and tax adjustments, these public sector champions enabled the development of the oil industry that Canada has today:  our largest export earner and a huge wealth generator for the private and public sectors.

Capturing more of the value of this resource within the Canadian economy is of interest to many in policy circles.  So would be extracting the bitumen in ways that mitigate greenhouse gas emissions and conserve cleaner fossil fuels.  Among the options would be to apply nuclear power in place of natural gas to generate the heat needed for bitumen extraction.   While innovators in the oil sands industry are aware of the long-term possibilities of nuclear, for the most part they are currently occupied with closer-to-deployment technical advances.

Currently deployed reactor designs would not be easy to apply to bitumen extraction in the oil sands.  They require large, permanent installations with large support staffs.  Even with these challenges, however, nuclear appeared in a 2003 study by the Canadian Energy Research Institute  to be approximately competitive with natural gas in in-situ applications.

Newer reactor designs such as the Enhanced CANDU 6, the Advanced CANDU Reactor (ACR-1000), and other so-called Generation 3 and 4 reactors, some of which are close to deployment but have not yet established multi-year track records in operation, will further advance the safety of nuclear energy and could substantially improve its economics.  Also, several small modular reactor (SMR) designs are being promoted – in varying degrees of proximity to deployment – with promises of further reductions in the financing, building and maintenance costs of nuclear energy, improving its applicability to non-power uses.  These promised advances are mainly based on SMRs’ portability, modularity, steam characteristics, and maintenance needs.

Conversations with a number of industry experts in Alberta in mid-2011 elicited views like these:

“When they advance the technology, we might be interested.  It’s too far from deployment right now.”

“Coal and gas are abundant and cheap here, at least for now. Why should the province help nuclear, an outside industry, rather than coal or gas?”

“Nuclear will be the likely option because it’s the alternative with no greenhouse gases.  But it takes time to develop that option.”

“The oil industry is actually quite risk-averse.  They need to see a new technology demonstrated before they’ll invest in it.”

Those are anecdotal and attitudinal comments, but they reflect an industry state of mind:  there is an economic opportunity in nuclear that is not being seized.

The likely steps to realizing this opportunity could be:

  • First, some academic and/or think-thank studies to build awareness of the scope of the opportunity.
  • Second, a technical survey of the bitumen operations’ energy requirements, and of the available nuclear technologies, to shorten the list of technical options.
  • Third, a multi-stakeholder technology development process, aimed at narrowing the technology gaps to a point where cost ranges and time frames would be sufficiently defined that business models could be contemplated.

The opportunity in bringing nuclear to the oil sands should stand on its own merits, and we have a responsibility to future generations to evaluate it based on the facts.

But having a vision of what we want, and the imagination to get there, is indispensable to winning as a country.  The successes we have today in Canada’s nuclear and oil sands industries, the pioneers who foresaw them, and the roads we travelled to achieve them, tell us that.

Messages Nuclear Energy

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).