Alberta funds SMR deployment study

21 September 2023

The province has announced it is investing CAD7 million (USD5 million) in a multi-year study to explore how small modular reactors (SMRs) could be safely, technically and economically deployed for oil sands operations. It is also working on putting a regulatory framework in place to allow private industry to pursue SMRs.

The announcement was made during the 24th World Petroleum Congress, held in Calgary from 17-21 September. L-R: Laura Kilcrease (Alberta Innovates), Rhona DelFrari (Cenovus), Schulz, Riemer and Alberta Minister of Minister of Affordability and Utilities Nathan Neudorf (Image: Government of Alberta)

The bitumen in Alberta's oil sands represent one of the world's largest proven oil reserves, but must be mined or heated underground using steam. SMRs could potentially supply non-emitting process heat and power to oil sands operations - which are typically in off-grid locations - in the years to come.

The funds from Alberta's Technology Innovation and Emissions Reduction Fund will be provided via Emissions Reduction Alberta to support a CAD26.7 million enabling study by Calgary-based Cenovus Energy, taking a more in-depth look at how SMRs could be used, and what information would be needed to pursue regulatory approval in the future. It will build on an early-stage feasibility study on the use of SMRs in steam-assisted gravity drainage operations in oil sands which was prepared by Hatch Ltd for Alberta Innovates, Cenovus and TC Energy and published in August.

Alberta joined the provinces of New Brunswick, Ontario and Saskatchewan as a signatory to a Memorandum of Understanding to collaborate on SMR development in 2021 and has more recently signed memorandums of understanding with several SMR developers including ARC Clean Technology, X-Energy and the Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute.

"A few years ago, the idea of expanding nuclear energy use was on the back burner - that is no longer the case," said Rebecca Schulz, Alberta's Minister of Environment and Protected Areas. "In Alberta, small modular nuclear reactors have the potential to supply heat and power to the oil sands, simultaneously reducing emissions and supporting Alberta's energy future. This funding is the foundation for that promising future."

Emissions Reduction Alberta CEO Justin Riemer said SMRs have "great potential" to supply non-emitting energy in many different applications. "Further studies like this are needed to see if the technology is suitable for those industrial applications. If so, it could be transformational for the in-situ oil sands sector and other sectors in Alberta," he said.

Regulation working group

The adoption of SMR technology in Alberta - which does not currently have any nuclear generating capacity - would require an extensive regulatory and engagement process, but the province said it is "currently working to ensure the regulatory framework is in place and ready should private industry pursue this technology."

A working group on emissions reductions set up by the government of Alberta and the Canadian federal government has agreed to commence the development of a regulatory framework for SMR technology. The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission regulates all stages of life of nuclear power plants in Canada.

Researched and written by World Nuclear News