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"Green Bitumen?!"

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August 27, 2012

"Green Bitumen?!"

Nuclear reactors in the tar sands

by D'Arcy Hande, Mark Bigland-Pritchard

Proponents of nuclear energy are claiming small nuclear reactors in Saskatchewan will make the Alberta tar sands more environmentally friendly, all in an effort to revive the nuclear industry. Photo: Zinta Avens Auzins

SASKATOON—What do you get when you cross a nuclear reactor with a hydraulic shovel-full of tar sands? The answer, according to the Canadian Energy Research Institute, is "Green Bitumen."

The brainchild of the nuclear industry, this novel concept of deploying small modular nuclear reactors (SMRs) to replace natural gas is being sold as a solution to the tar sands' reputation for producing the largest carbon footprint on the planet. Nuclear is being touted as an environmentally friendly, "clean" energy source for the extraction process. But in order to make that claim, one must overlook the substantial carbon emissions in the nuclear "fuel cycle," from mining to ultimate disposal; the risks of weapons proliferation; the toxic radioactive footprint; and the legacy of highly radioactive waste left behind for many generations to come.

Several key players have expressed interest in deploying nuclear reactors in the tar sands, including: Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. (AECL), a federal Crown corporation; SNC Lavalin Nuclear and its subsidiary Candu Energy Inc.; Bruce Power, one of Ontario's largest nuclear power generators and its parent company Cameco, the world's largest supplier of uranium; Toshiba, builder of the Fukushima Daiichi 3 power plant; Westinghouse; Aitel; Gen 4 (formerly Hyperion); and General Atomics. The governments of Canada, Alberta and Saskatchewan have at times all actively promoted this agenda. Also involved is the Idaho National Laboratory (INL), a major US Department of Energy nuclear research facility.

The nuclear industry, government and academia are pitching "Green Bitumen" to the tar sands industry and anyone else who will listen. Dr. Warren Bell, founding president of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment, sees wide and grave implications for the environment and public health should this message resonate with its target audience.

"The federal and provincial governments are intent on tying the tar sands to nuclear power. Their forlorn hope is that the putative 'greenness' of the latter will counteract the overwhelming 'blackness' of the former," Dr. Bell told The Dominion.

Nuclear reactors have been proposed for three different functions in the tar sands. They could produce high-pressure steam to heat up the underground deposits, inducing bitumen flow from Steam Assisted Gravity Drainage (SAGD) mines. They could supply electricity to the mines. And they could generate electricity to produce hydrogen from water. The hydrogen is used to "upgrade" bitumen into a product similar to conventional crude oil.

But attention is currently focused principally on high pressure steam production. Single-mine electricity requirements are too small to justify reactor purchase, and current hydrogen production methods—from natural gas—are much cheaper. Since the high reactor temperatures required for high pressure steam production exclude conventional designs, the nuclear industry will look to universities for taxpayer-subsidized research and development based on as-yet unproven, "fourth generation" SMR designs.

A reactor would serve one tar sands mining complex, producing at most 30,000 barrels/day; a 375MW-thermal reactor would provide sufficient steam. The same size of reactor would be rated at about 150MW if used to generate electricity, with the other 225MW lost to the atmosphere. For comparison, modern full-size reactors generate 1000 to 1500MW.

The first sign of a concerted effort towards nuclear reactors in the tar sands came in 2006, when the Alberta Energy Research Institute, the energy-technology arm of the provincial government, announced plans to participate in a study with the industry to define nuclear options for the tar sands. This was followed by a private presentation by AECL and Energy Alberta Corporation—a company later linked to Ontario's Bruce Power—to the provincial Conservative caucus in 2007. Two days later, the Alberta Conservative convention passed a resolution to explore using nuclear power plants to assist oil sands development.

In 2008, the provincial government established the Alberta Nuclear Power Expert Panel to study the proposals. Three of its four members were drawn from the oil and nuclear industries. In 2007, with support from their federal counterparts, provincial government officials had already entered into discussions with the Idaho National Laboratory and had reached an agreement to study ways to use nuclear energy in Alberta's oil and gas industry.

The Peace River Environmental Society and other concerned citizens began an intensive public campaign to resist Bruce Power’s application to build a large-scale nuclear reactor in Peace River country, in north-western Alberta. They argued that the application and review process was riddled with a lack of transparency and integrity, undermining its credibility.

"It's a sad commentary on our society when government institutions meant to protect and inform us become puppets of the industries that harm us. Their obstruction of the truth compromised the best interests of Albertans for the benefit of an industry that has created massive debt and contamination for Canadians for the past forty years," Peace River anti-nuclear activist Pat McNamara told The Dominion in an interview.

Faced with effective public opposition, Bruce Power finally withdrew its application in December 2011. But by then the focus had already moved on to Saskatchewan.

Even before the election of his Saskatchewan Party government in 2007, Brad Wall had decided to embrace a nuclear future. "Small reactor technology is coming on fast and may present an opportunity for our province to develop our oil sands in an environmentally responsible way as the new technology produces much-needed steam as well as energy," Wall said in May 2007, six months before his election as Premier, according to a Saskatchewan Party Caucus news release. In 2008, Bruce Power made a pitch to SaskPower, a provincial Crown corporation, extolling the benefits of a large-scale nuclear reactor in Saskatchewan, with the potential to export electricity to the Alberta tar sands and beyond.

The Uranium Development Partnership, a Saskatchewan review panel comprising university and industry representatives, was keen on moving the nuclear agenda forward. Its report with 20 recommendations to "revitalize and capture growth opportunities across the uranium value chain" was released in April 2009 and followed by a public consultation process over the summer months. Just as had happened in Alberta, the Saskatchewan government had already signed an agreement with the Idaho National Laboratory, in March 2009. According to a Saskatchewan government news release, the Memorandum of Understanding would provide "a mechanism for the government and INL to consider research and demonstration projects on a variety of energy sources and resources, including uranium, nuclear energy, heavy oil, oil shale and oil sands."

Public reaction and opposition to the nuclear proposals was swift. The Saskatchewan government ultimately had to retreat from the Bruce Power proposal, but then pursued a different strategy from Alberta. Public funds were made available for nuclear research and development at the University of Saskatchewan. Largely outside public purview, and in close collaboration with the University administration, the Canadian Centre for Nuclear Innovation (CCNI) was established in 2011 with $30 million of government seed money, as was reported in Briarpatch earlier this year. In the CCNI Business Framework, the government establishes that CCNI must meet expectations for nuclear industry enhancement over the next seven years. In a linked move, the Hitachi business group was also funded to conduct "research into the design and feasibility of small reactor technologies," according to a 2011 Saskatchewan government news release.

In the short-term, nuclear reactors cannot compete with natural gas in the tar sands, but there is much dispute over the extent of gas reserves, adding uncertainty to plans for rapid gas-fuelled tar sands expansion. Industry experts worry that by 2030 there might not be sufficient natural gas to fulfil requirements, according to a 2006 Oil Sands Experts Group Workshop report by Len Flint. Studies continue to explore just when nuclear might become a viable option.

Irrespective of the economics, environmental journalist Andrew Nikiforuk told The Dominion that using nuclear power to produce bitumen is an absurd plan. "It's an insult to basic energetics and thermodynamics," he said.

This is not the nuclear industry's only target. In Saskatchewan, rapid, minimally regulated expansion of the oil, gas and potash industries will massively increase electricity consumption. SaskPower forecasts an 83 per cent increase in heavy industry's consumption by 2019, with 3750MW of new generating capacity required by 2033, citing nuclear as a long-term option, post-2023. SaskPower's grid management methodology would favour smaller (200 to 300MW), modular applications of existing reactor types. Hitachi has proposed to adapt a small conventional reactor design under the Saskatchewan agreement.

It is also important to recognize that the conventional power industry—nuclear, fossil fuels, pipelines and electricity—is becoming increasingly integrated. Along with Cameco and BPC Generation Infrastructure Trust, TransCanada Corporation is a one-third owner of Bruce Power. Its proposed Keystone XL pipeline represents an important synchronicity of investment between oil and nuclear expansion. SNC Lavalin is already active in the tar sands, and dovetailing that business with their Candu nuclear interests could be a next step. SNC Lavalin now also owns AltaLink, the private electrical company operating most of Alberta’s electrical grid. Planned and existing tie lines into Saskatchewan, British Columbia and Montana will enhance that export capacity.

Some argue that the Western Energy Corridor proposal, designed to export electricity across the border into the United States, is an even bigger opportunity for nuclear expansion in Alberta and Saskatchewan. This explains the keen interest of the Idaho National Laboratory in collaborating with government and industry in Canada. INL sees potential for nuclear reactors in western Canada to fulfil future U.S. energy demand. It is not, however, clear how any nuclear reactor could be built without public subsidy.

But the tar sands, perched atop the federal agenda, remain a much-desired prize. SMRs constitute one of very few technologies that tar sands corporations can use to misleadingly promise a smaller future carbon footprint. Even if ultimately non-viable, the argument serves to promote continued rapid expansion of tar sands extraction.

While European countries such as Denmark and Germany are increasingly moving to a renewables-based future, few North American utility and grid management companies are working to overcome the technical challenges involved in making that transition. Unless this changes, many regions are left with a choice between coal, gas and nuclear. The high greenhouse gas emissions of fossil fuels provide the nuclear industry with an opportunity to promote itself and revive its flagging fortunes despite its prohibitively high price tags.

David Geary, an anti-nuclear activist in Saskatchewan, says there can be no "Green Bitumen" in an environmentally sustainable future.

"Nuclear energy is not clean or green – it uses up huge amounts of fresh water, routinely spews out numerous pollutants and carcinogens into the air and water, and leaves behind a legacy of highly toxic, long-lived wastes," he told The Dominion.

Time will tell whether the organized struggles against well-funded vested interests in western Canada will overcome the proposed publicly-subsidized proliferation of small nuclear reactors in the tar sands or anywhere else. The battle between truly sustainable energy options and the "Green Bitumen" of the conventional energy industry continues.

D'Arcy Hande is a retired archivist and historian, living in Saskatoon. Dr Mark Bigland-Pritchard is a Saskatoon-based applied physicist working as a sustainable energy and green building consultant.

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