New study of Alberta's nuclear energy options

31 March 2008

Canada's Alberta Research Council (ARC) and the USA's Idaho National Laboratory (INL) have agreed to study the energy options for the Canadian province of Alberta, including the potential use of advanced nuclear power.

The two organizations have signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) to collaborate on a series of energy and environmental research and development initiatives, including the potential application of current and future nuclear energy technology within the context of Alberta's specific conditions and industry applications.

INL and ARC will collaboratively develop an advisory report covering various aspects of the potential introduction of nuclear energy into Alberta, for both electricity generation and also in relation to possible interaction in oilsands (tar sands) development. ARC said that the two organizations "will pay specific attention to environmental impact, industrial integration and holistic cost-effectiveness."

Ian Potter, vice president of energy at ARC, said: "The MoU with INL provides mutually beneficial expertise that will be critical in the orderly assessment and development of Alberta's natural resources in an energy dependent world. We are confident that work carried out under the MoU with INL will enable us to provide solid information on these energy options to industry, the public and policymakers."


Steam and hydrogen

The partnership plans to work out a research agenda by late summer or early autumn, Potter said. Potential topics range from using nuclear reactors to provide heat for steam used in thermal oilsands extraction to the production of hydrogen and oxygen used by bitumen refiners, he said. Potter added that industry will participate in the research. The MoU on collaboration follows a recent visit by Potter to the INL.

INL associate director Bill Rogers described the collaboration to the Edmonton Journal as "a marriage made in heaven." He said that although no budget had been announced for the collaboration, potentially any of the INL's 3800 staff could be drafted as needed into the Alberta project. Rogers said that "the US is dependent on Alberta for energy security," noting Alberta's "essential role as the biggest source of growing American oil and natural gas imports." He said that Alberta stands out as a reliable and stable supplier in a world where the US faces "nationalization of resources in countries that are hostile to the US."

Alberta's energy minister, Mel Knight, said: "Meeting our province's electricity demands both now and in the future begins with reliable and clear information on all of the available energy option." He added, "We welcome collaborations such as the one announced between the Alberta Research Council and Idaho National Laboratory to provide the solid analysis and research on the options available to address Alberta's unique needs."

Various proposals have been made to use nuclear power to produce steam for extraction of oil from Alberta's oilsand deposits and electricity also for the major infrastructure involved. At present a lot of natural gas is used - up to 30 cubic metres per barrel of oil. The gas is used as an energy source to make steam to liquefy the bitumen, enabling its separation, and to generate electricity for mining and treatment. It is also a raw material for hydrogen to break down the long-chain hydrocarbons to yield synthetic crude oil (about 5 kg is used per barrel).


Flexibile deployment

One problem related to the provision of steam for mining is that a nuclear plant is a long-life fixture, and mining of oilsands proceeds across the landscape, giving rise to very long steam transmission lines and consequent loss of efficiency. Therefore, smaller reactors, with capacities of some 100 MW, could be more suitable for individual projects, given the limitations of supplying steam over more than 25 km.

The INL has designed and constructed 52 reactors of varying capacities since its establishment in 1949 as the National Reactor Testing Station. The INL could use its past experience to help develop a small-sized reactor specifically for producing steam for the extraction of oil from Alberta's oilsands. Such a reactor could operate for some ten years to provide the necessary steam needed to exploit a particular area of oilsands, while larger reactors could provide the electricity required to refine the oil extracted.