Canada Considering Nuclear Reactors in Alberta Tar Sands Fields

Like them or hate them, Alberta, Canada’s tar sands deposits of bitumen or extremely heavy crude oil, are the world’s largest. The province’s resources include the Athabasca, Peace River and Cold Lake deposits in the McMurray Formation, which consist of a mixture of crude bitumen, a semi-solid form of crude oil, admixed with silica sand, clay minerals, and water.

According to the U.S. government’s Energy Information Administration, “Canada controls the third-largest amount of proven reserves in the world, after Saudi Arabia and Venezuela…  Canada’s proven oil reserve levels have been stagnant or slightly declining since 2003, when they increased by an order of magnitude after oil sands resources were deemed to be technically and economically recoverable. The oil sands now account for approximately 170 billion barrels, or 98 percent, of Canada’s oil reserves.”

Lying under 54,000 square miles of forest and bogs, the bitumen tar sands are estimated to be comparable in magnitude to the world’s total proven reserves of conventional petroleum.

But exploiting the tar sands comes at a significant environmental cost.

Oil sands pollution is not a topic that Ottawa is keen to publicize. In 2009 the Canadian government acknowledged that it deliberately had excluded data indicating a 20 percent increase in annual pollution from Canada’s oil sands industry from a 567-page report on climate change that it was required to submit to the United Nations.

Quite aside from the despoliation of the landscape, Alberta’s oil sands have been found to be one of the major causes of air pollution in Canada, as Tar sands facilities were found to be among the top four highest polluters of volatile organic compounds, a major air contaminant, along with acid rain.

That pollution rap sheet could soon include nuclear, as Toshiba is developing “mini” nuclear reactors to be used to mine Canadian oil sands, with an initial deployment projected by 2020.

Why nuclear power? It is estimated that approximately 90 percent of the Alberta oil sands are too far below the surface to use open-pit mining. Making liquid fuels from oil sands requires energy for steam injection and refining. Mining oil sands is water intensive; drilling one well consumes 5.5 acre-feet of water each year, and the production of one gallon of oil requires thirty-five gallons of water.

Toshiba’s new mini reactor will produce only 10,000-50,000 kilowatts, about one to five percent the power of a regular nuclear reactor, according to company sources, with the steam generated in the reactor pumped underground. Toshiba reportedly plans to construct a nuclear reactor building underground, with an earthquake-absorbing structure.

Besides potential earthquakes, the buried reactor will have to cope with temperatures as cold as –40C in winter and 30C in the summer.

Toshiba is not the only Asian company to tout for business in Alberta’s oil sands. Last year China’s CNOOC Ltd. spent $15.1 billion to acquire oil sands producer Nexen Inc., but the deal was controversial. Accordingly, Wenran Jiang, a senior fellow at the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada and senior adviser to the Alberta energy department noted, “They feel the oil sands projects are too large in pre-capital investment and take too long to get to the market.”

But Ottawa is not discouraged over its oil sands future. The Canadian Energy Research Instituteestimates that Canadian employment as a result of new oil sands investments is expected to grow from 75,000 in 2010 to 905,000 by 2035 and that oil sands developments overall will contribute $2.1 trillion to the Canadian economy over the next 25 years.

The wisdom of dotting Canada’s remote northern landscape with mini reactors has yet to be debated, but with Harper’s conservative government and the figures stated above, it seems likely that mini reactors in the Great White North are most likely a done deal.

This piece is cross-posted from Oil with permission