CANDU for Tar Sands?

There have been several news stories lately about the possibility of building a CANDU reactor to make steam to extract the oil from the tar sands.  Do two wrongs make a right?

There is even a new company formed to support the concept – Energy Alberta Corp.  Of course it is supported by Atomic Energy of Canada Limited, a Federal Crown Corporation.  CBC has a report on this.

On the way to last fall’s CanWEA conference, I sat beside a native Manitoban.  He asked why I was going to Winnipeg, and so the conversation got onto our provinces’ respective electricity supplies.  He was justly proud of Manitoba’s hydroelectric resources, which supply over 95% of their power.  And he was aware of Manitoba’s newly commission St. Leon wind farm, which has had enormous community support.  In the conversation, I enlightened him on Ontario’s supply mix.

With my tongue planted firmly in my cheek, I said, “I would like to thank you for letting the federal government use your taxes to subsidize the nuclear plants, so I can get cheap power.”

He responded, “You’re welcome.”  It was a typical, polite, Canadian response.  And I think his tongue was firmly planted in his cheek.  Or was it that he was gritting his teeth?

One of the CEO’s for the oil sands that was musing about using CANDU plants commented that when it comes to nuclear, the governments are usually involved.  He has that right.  It’s bad enough that we use our federal tax dollars to subsidise CANDU for consumption in Ontario.  But should we do that for wealthy Alberta, to make oil from tar sands for export to China and the US?  Both situations are intolerable, but more is worse.

There is one aspect of the using CANDU’s in Alberta that is appealing, and that is efficiency.  In Ontario, the nuclear plants are less than 40% efficient.  That is, only 40% of the heat energy created is made into electricity.  The rest of the heat is sent into Lake Huron or Lake Ontario.  Presumably in Alberta, more of the excess heat could be used to make steam, which is used in coaxing the oil from the sand.  Also, the extraction of tar sands is a process that goes on 24/7.  This is far more suited to a nuclear plant than is Ontario’s electricity demand, which varies by 50% depending on the time day, weather, season etc.  If we have to have another nuclear plant (and I am not saying we do), it probably makes sense to put it in Alberta.
Today, the steam used by the oil sands is made mainly from natural gas.  Some have described the tar sands as an expensive way to change natural gas into oil.  This naturally makes the oil sands a very risky proposition.  Will we have enough gas to keep the plants running?  Will carbon taxes or carbon trading make the use of gas, and production from tar sands uneconomic?  Will demand for tar sands gas make shortages or higher prices for what gas is truly very efficient at – home heating?  These are huge risks for Alberta, for the stock market, and indeed because of the scope of the tar sands plants, for all of Canada.

The ultimate solution, of course, is to drastically slow down our tar sands development.  Even Peter Lougheed has suggested our current pace of development needs review.  But a nuclear station for the tar sands makes more sense than it does for Ontario.  But lets kill the subsidies.  Then maybe it won’t happen at all.

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