Not 'if' but 'when' for nuclear oil sands

11 January 2007

Nuclear power will one day be employed to extract oil from Canada's oil sands, according to the country's natural resources minister, Gary Lunn.

Oil sands are gritty mixtures of bitumen which contain useful oil but are too hard for conventional extraction. Heat must be applied to soften the bitumen so that oil can be extracted. Canada has huge reserves of this future resource which are becoming economic with higher oil prices but the costs of heat production and the carbon emissions it creates can be a barrier to extraction. At present, the costs of natural gas can account for up to 60% of operating costs at an oil sands facility.

Alongside natural gas, and biproduct fuels like bitumen and petroleum coke, another potential source of extraction heat under consideration is nuclear.

France's Commissariat à l'Energie Atomique (CEA) has developed conceptual plans for a reactor that could provide steam to an oil sands project. Antares is a 600 MWt high-temperature gas-cooled modular reactor, which, according to a presentation given by Francois Werkoff to the European Nuclear Congress in Paris in 2005, could be built in pairs to supply steam at 310 deg C via pipes up to 10 km long whilst also producing 186 MWe for other plant equipment. Werkoff said that the thermal inertia of the earth would be such that one reactor could be shut down for maintenance for as long as a month without causing extraction to slow.

In 2005, Thierry Desmarest of French oil company Total said, "Perhaps one day we will have to consider using nuclear for generating steam and power for production." Now, another oil company has spoken of employing nuclear power. Husky Energy has reportedly considered using its own nuclear reactor to provide steam to a 200,000 barrel per day project called Sunrise. John Lau, CEO of Husky, said that in drawing up its engineering plans for Sunrise, fuel for heat is "one of the major areas that we are looking for front-end engineering, what fuel we are going to use and what technology we are going to use."

Lau estimated the first extraction at Sunrise would occur in 2012-5, but said the timing would not right for nuclear. He added that nuclear is "workable, but it depends on government," while in December 2006, Canadian Natural Resources Minister Gary Lunn reportedly said that it was not a question of 'when' not 'if' nuclear would be employed, saying it could "play a very significant role" and that he was "very, very keen."

Further information

Husky Energy

Commissariat à l'Energie Atomique (CEA)

WNN: Canada announces clean energy initiative