Canada’s tar sands seek to harness nuclear power amid urgent global need to cut emissions – National

The pressing global need to cut emissions in the face of a growing climate crisis is sparking renewed interest in nuclear power – and few places more so than in Canada’s tar sands.

While the idea of ​​using nuclear power to replace fossil fuels burned in oil sands production has been mooted for years, some experts say the reality could be a decade away. On paper, at least, there is more potential to deploy small modular reactor (SMR) technology in Alberta’s oil sands region than anywhere else in the country.

« Without a doubt, the oil sands are the largest market for small modular reactors in Canada, » said John Gorman, President and CEO of the Canadian Nuclear Association. « It’s something that some companies are looking at very actively. »

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Small modular reactors are a type of nuclear design much smaller than a traditional nuclear reactor. Generating between 10 and 300 MW of power, SMRs are fully scalable and are designed to be built economically under factory conditions, rather than on site like a conventional full-scale reactor.

While SMRs are not yet commercially available, the technology is getting closer. The International Atomic Energy Agency estimates that nearly 100 SMRs could be operating worldwide by 2030. In Canada, four provinces – New Brunswick, Ontario, Saskatchewan and Alberta _ have agreed to collaborate in the advancement of SMRs as a clean energy option, and Canadian researchers are working on new materials and designs that could make SMRs practical in a wide range of new uses.

Proponents say SMRs could potentially be used not only to supply clean electricity to small power grids, such as those in rural areas, but also to supply heat to natural resource industries. In the oil sands, operators use massive amounts of high-temperature heat to produce the steam needed to extract bitumen from the sand – and they get that heat by burning natural gas.

In total, the oil and gas industry is responsible for 30% of Canada’s natural gas consumption, which means that coping with the industry’s use of fossil fuels will be essential if Canada is to meet its climate commitments.

The oil sands industry itself — through an organization called the Pathways Alliance, made up of Canadian Natural Resources Ltd., Cenovus Energy Inc., ConocoPhillips Canada, Imperial Oil Ltd., MEG Energy Corp. and Suncor Energy Inc. — committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions from oil sands production by 22 million tonnes per year by 2030, and to achieving a net-zero emissions goal of here 2050.

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To achieve this, the Pathways Alliance has proposed a major carbon capture and storage transmission line that would capture CO2 from oil sands facilities and transport it to a storage facility near Cold Lake, Alberta. This project alone could produce around 10 million tonnes of emission reductions per year and could be operational by the end of the decade.

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But Pathways has also formed a committee to formally explore nuclear as an alternative to natural gas in oil sands production.

“Absolutely, we see SMRs as a low- or no-emitting source of the high-temperature heat we need,” said Martha Hall Findlay, climate manager at Suncor Energy Inc. “But it has to be economically viable. It has to make sense. »

Findlay said the industry will need clarity on what level of government financial support, if any, will be available for SMRs. There are also questions about the regulatory process, given the energy sector’s frustrating experience in recent years in approving large-scale projects.

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« This is Canada — it takes a long time to build anything, » she said. « But if we want to see implementation by 2030, or the early 2030s, we need to do this stuff now. We need to look at it now.

Dan Wicklum, president and CEO of the nonprofit advisory group The Transition Accelerator and former CEO of the Canadian Oilsands Innovation Alliance, said the energy industry has formally assessed the nuclear opportunity in the past and rejected it, largely because of the cost.

But he said the industry’s new net zero emissions goal « changes everything ».

“We can no longer just do the things we were going to do to reduce emissions. Optionality fell off the table for us,” Wicklum said. “In a zero-emissions paradigm, there is no doubt that nuclear is taken very seriously.”

However, Wicklum added that for any large-scale emissions reduction projects to get off the ground, governments and industry will need to come to an agreement on who is responsible for paying them.

“Industry expects the federal government to say, ‘Make it worth it,’” he said. “They want more taxpayers’ money. They basically said there wasn’t enough public support right now for them to take action. And because of that, I think, the feasibility of SMRs _ as well as carbon capture and storage and so on. _ is completely called into question.

© 2022 The Canadian Press


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