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Canada Considering Nuclear Reactors in Alberta Tar Sands Fields

By John Daly | Mon, 21 January 2013 22:42 | 13

Like them or hate them, Alberta, Canada’s tar sands deposits of bitumen or extremely heavy crude oil, are the world’s largest. The province’s resources include the Athabasca, Peace River and Cold Lake deposits in the McMurray Formation, which consist of a mixture of crude bitumen, a semi-solid form of crude oil, admixed with silica sand, clay minerals, and water.

According to the U.S. government’s Energy Information Administration, “Canada controls the third-largest amount of proven reserves in the world, after Saudi Arabia and Venezuela…  Canada's proven oil reserve levels have been stagnant or slightly declining since 2003, when they increased by an order of magnitude after oil sands resources were deemed to be technically and economically recoverable. The oil sands now account for approximately 170 billion barrels, or 98 percent, of Canada's oil reserves.”

Lying under 54,000 square miles of forest and bogs, the bitumen tar sands are estimated to be comparable in magnitude to the world's total proven reserves of conventional petroleum.

But exploiting the tar sands comes at a significant environmental cost.

Oil sands pollution is not a topic that Ottawa is keen to publicize. In 2009 the Canadian government acknowledged that it deliberately had excluded data indicating a 20 percent increase in annual pollution from Canada’s oil sands industry from a 567-page report on climate change that it was required to submit to the United Nations.

Quite aside from the despoliation of the landscape, Alberta’s oil sands have been found to be one of the major causes of air pollution in Canada, as Tar sands facilities were found to be among the top four highest polluters of volatile organic compounds, a major air contaminant, along with acid rain.

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That pollution rap sheet could soon include nuclear, as Toshiba is developing “mini” nuclear reactors to be used to mine Canadian oil sands, with an initial deployment projected by 2020.

Why nuclear power? It is estimated that approximately 90 percent of the Alberta oil sands are too far below the surface to use open-pit mining. Making liquid fuels from oil sands requires energy for steam injection and refining. Mining oil sands is water intensive; drilling one well consumes 5.5 acre-feet of water each year, and the production of one gallon of oil requires thirty-five gallons of water.

Toshiba's new mini reactor will produce only 10,000-50,000 kilowatts, about one to five percent the power of a regular nuclear reactor, according to company sources, with the steam generated in the reactor pumped underground. Toshiba reportedly plans to construct a nuclear reactor building underground, with an earthquake-absorbing structure.

Besides potential earthquakes, the buried reactor will have to cope with temperatures as cold as –40C in winter and 30C in the summer.

Related Article: Oil Exports, Politics and Propaganda

Toshiba is not the only Asian company to tout for business in Alberta’s oil sands. Last year China’s CNOOC Ltd. spent $15.1 billion to acquire oil sands producer Nexen Inc., but the deal was controversial. Accordingly, Wenran Jiang, a senior fellow at the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada and senior adviser to the Alberta energy department noted, “They feel the oil sands projects are too large in pre-capital investment and take too long to get to the market.”

But Ottawa is not discouraged over its oil sands future. The Canadian Energy Research Institute estimates that Canadian employment as a result of new oil sands investments is expected to grow from 75,000 in 2010 to 905,000 by 2035 and that oil sands developments overall will contribute $2.1 trillion to the Canadian economy over the next 25 years.

The wisdom of dotting Canada’s remote northern landscape with mini reactors has yet to be debated, but with Harper’s conservative government and the figures stated above, it seems likely that mini reactors in the Great White North are most likely a done deal.

By. John C.K. Daly of Oilprice.com

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  • art johnson on January 22 2013 said:
    this topic has been kicked around for years. the green lobby is against, as are likely a large segment of alberta.

    we don't have a problem burning coal, gas, oil for energy.

    nuclear waste / decommisssioning is still a huge issue without resolution on the horizon.

    solve that and its game-change
  • reg dahl on January 22 2013 said:
    Any research submitted to any govt. agency should include Elizabeth Nickson's research in her book about ECO FASCISTS " AND THEIR AGENDAS"
    I've had it with these attack dogs! If "they" want to target us - we will target them (and their career lawyers)
  • George Carlin on January 22 2013 said:
    Art, I think you make far too much of an issue of the spent fuel. It is a very small volume and is easily containable. One day we will utilize the massive amount of energy still recoverable in this stuff too.

    The fact that the "greens" are against nuclear power as an alternative to using fossil to get the oil out of the tar sands is a testament to how far the "greens" are from an actual environmental group. Their blind hatred for nuclear power keeps them from realizing that nuclear power is one of the most, if not the most, clean ways to generate large amount of electricity.
  • a preston on January 22 2013 said:
    I thought reporting was supposed to be objective? It seemed like this article had a anti-oilsands slant and then I saw it was written by the CEO of a bio-fuels company. Why don't we get the CEO of Coke to write about Pepsi's financial results too? This is more like an editorial than a news item and should be presented as such.

    Also, the statement that nuclear power will add to the "pollution rap-sheet" is clearly biased. Nuclear power would reduce the greenhouse gas emissions of the oilsands projects. A balanced discussion would present this advantage alongside the question of nuclear waste disposal.
  • Scotty on Denman on January 22 2013 said:
    This is propaganda based on the presumptions that the it'll be business as usual in tar sands for a long time to come and that Canadians will acquiesce to expanding and privatizing our nuclear industry.

    The tar sands are a tremendous resource, no doubt, and nuclear might be one way to address the GHG issue but much of that particular problem has to do with the rate of development as it does with the methods of extraction; it almost goes without saying (that's why the article skirts it) that the big problems with nuclear are operational meltdown and waste disposal, neither of which has been satisfactorily solved.

    You know Big Oil is feeling the heat from increasingly conscious Canadians over environmental issues. One sign is that they are playing the nuclear card now, so soon after Fukushima, instead of waiting for things to cool off like after Chernobyl. And they are probably justified in feeling nervous: the Albetarian pipeline is about to be quashed by the incoming NDP government in BC and Harper's majority is probably too far gone to salvage; as BC Liberal and Harper Conservatives get sent packing, so goes the head-off development, by any means, of the tar sands.
  • John Busby on January 23 2013 said:
    The tarsands problem cannot be solved by just some steam raising. The mining side needs hot water to separate the bitumen from the sand, while the in-situ does need steam. But only half of the bitumen is converted to synthetic crude oil, while the other half needs the importation of diluent to enable it to be pipelined South to Texan refineries. Natural gas currently provides the hydrogen for hydrogenation and is used for generating electricity. Diesel is also required for the excavation and haultrucks and eventually for the restoration of the ruined landscape.

    Around 30% of the energy in the bitumen is lost in the processings so a barrel of bitumen has only a 70% oil equivalent. So using nuclear fission just for steam raising is only one contribution to the tarsands economy.
  • George Carlin on January 23 2013 said:
    Scotty, what operational meltdown problem? Two major accidents in 40 years of nuclear power, one caused by sub-par design and careless operation, the other caused by two 1000 year natural disasters consecutively bombarding the plant (although it was a completely avoidable accident). By your logic we should halt all air travel as on an incredibly rare occasion a plain crashes. I believe most people would agree that the reward of the ability to fly far outweighs the very small risk of a crash.

    This is the other side of the nuclear equation that regulatory agencies who claim to hold public safety as paramount forget: the cost to public health from the alternative to nuclear, fossil fuel.
  • Gordon Steingart on January 23 2013 said:
    Nuclear is the answer . Everybody gets something. The Tar sands will be developed either way . If the poor environmental footprint of using natural gas to extract heavy oil can be resolved by the nuclear option ,we win environmentally , economically and we can keep our natural gas for domestic or exporting uses. Oh yes, and lets not forget the other industry in Canada that benefits, Uranium mining ,right next door in the Athabasca basin. Time to build more refinement capabilities in that area of Canada. It all can work and it all makes sense. Get on with it !
  • Dr Dwijen Banerjee on January 28 2013 said:
    I have written a book on "Oil sands, heavy oil, and bitumen : from recovery to refinery, PennWell, 2012". In the preface I wrote "In my opinion,a much cleaner energy source,such as natural gas,should not be used for the recovery of the much dirtier, environmentally unfriendly bitumen (see chap. 11). A new integrated concept for the production and upgrading of bitumen (clean-bitumen-process) is discussed in chapter 9; in this process,natural gas is replaced by the heaviest part of the bitumen itself."
    I recommended in Ch 9 to gasify the heaviest portion (asphaltenes)of the bitumen that is most difficult and expensive to upgrade to produce heat for SAGD steam. Gasifier is costly (but less than nuclear) but recommended (not burner) in order to capture CO2 and reduce SOx/NOx emissions.
    Further, Nuclear is not an easy solution as it sounds, please see further in page 164 I wrote, "Currently, in-situ bitumen production in Alberta exceeds one million barrels per day. So it will take four nuclear reactors of 1,000 MWe capacity each to meet the energy demand just for the steam for bitumen production. Then, what about the additional energy required for further upgrading and transportation".
  • Colin Welch on January 28 2013 said:
    We need to change the way we live, vastly decreasing our consumption. Our model of endless growth is not sustainable. We need to leave this tar in the GROUND.
  • Dr. S on February 08 2014 said:
    This entire argument is backwards.

    Why on earth would we use nuclear, which has an energy density that is at least 43 MILLION TIMES greater (Uranium) than the by-product of what we get from the tarsands (oil). It makes no economic or environmental sense.

    The solution is not to "Greenify" the tarsands. It's to shut the tar sands down completely and to use the obvious solution - Nuclear energy to replace the fossil fuels we use now. It's a virtually unlimited resource which can recycle its own fuel(See fast-breeder reactors - which are not science fiction. They work. They exist.), is extremely easy to contain (and use in the future!!) any waste that is created. There has never been a nuclear waste storage leak. And the entire production of all nuclear waste can be stored in a single football field. Literally.

    Chernobyl - not a valid argument. This was a reactor type that has NEVER been used in western civilization. That plant had two purposes - to make plutonium weapons, and to make power. It was highly unsafe -- it did not even have a containment building, I mean c'mon -- and does not exist anywhere in the West and never has. All scientifically credible estimates say that Chernobyl has only been responsible for at the most 4,000 deaths (including cancer deaths decades down the line). Comparing Chernobyl to modern day reactors is like comparing a shanty-town aluminum hut to fort knox.

    Fukushima - while disastrous and extremely sad, the background radiation at fukushima is, right now, less than some places on earth with millions of people currently living in them (notably areas of South America). In addition, the fast-breeder reactor project that was shut down in the US has solved the meltdown problem from standard liquid cooled reactors like the one at fukushima. This problem was essentially solved in the 1980s. We have the technology, right now, to stop using fossil fuels. It has literally existed for 30 years.

    This is coming from someone who is a scientist who is a pragmatist that cares only about the Evidence. Consequently, it is undeniable that we are responsible for the rise in earths temperature, that this rise is due mostly to CO2 and that we are emitting that CO2. Therefore, I am staunchly an opponent to the use of fossil fuels for any mass-scale power generation, or combustion engine.

    By the same token, the evidence is clear that nuclear power is a complete solution that is available immediately, and deployable immediately to solve our dependence on fossil fuels. Not in 50 years. Now. We could do this in 15 years if we started now.
  • Derrick on March 06 2014 said:
    Some of these comments should make you wonder... if there is any sanity left.

    The most severe man-made disaster in the history of the Earth just happened only a few years ago in Fukishima, Japan yet the nuclear power business rolls on. All those young kids in Tokyo with recurring nosebleeds must be A-OK.
  • Dennis on March 16 2014 said:
    Nuclear will never happen in Alberta.

    Bruce Nuclear proposed it in 2009 and were tossed out of the Province by Albertans. We used video of Three Mile Island and Chernobyl to stop it along with valid arguments about the waste disposal. Now we have Fukishima to add to the collection.

    There is a better, cleaner way without waste, that makes the oil company CEOs shutter in fear.

    Look up with the knowledge, that life on this planet would not exist, without the giant furnace in the sky.

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