Written By: Misty Seastrom and Christina Lam

Currently, natural gas is the primary source of energy used to recover bitumen from the oil sands (Statistics Canada, 2009). Natural gas is a non-renewable resource that emits greenhouse gases when it is burned (Natural Resources Canada, 2019). Greenhouse gases (GHGs) are a cause for concern in regards to current climate change trends. Because of this concern, companies are interested in finding alternative energies that can be used for power generation. Nuclear energy is known to be a highly efficient and reliable power source that produces little to no air emissions. However, nuclear energy is also considered costly and dangerous, and uranium is not a renewable resource. The oil sands are large contributors to Canada’s GHG emissions, so industry experts are interested in whether the oil industry should construct small, modular, nuclear reactors to supply the energy required to remove bitumen from the oil sands.

Key Supporting Arguments

Nuclear energy is a very efficient power source. One gram of uranium produces about 8,000 times more electricity than 1 gram of coal (Austin, 2017). For every kilogram of coal, only 9 kWh can be produced (Austin, 2017), whereas a kilogram of uranium with nuclear fission produces 24,513,889 kWh (Austin, 2017). The potential energy of nuclear power is 2,715,385 times denser than coal. The density of nuclear energy cannot be compared to any other known source of energy, whether renewable or non-renewable (Austin, 2017). Small, modular, nuclear reactors could be used to supply up to 300 megawatts of electricity each; effectively replacing multiple gas turbine or cogeneration units (Heubl, 2019).

Not only is nuclear energy efficient, it is also very reliable. Nuclear energy has the highest capacity factor out of all means of electricity production (Heubl, 2019). The capacity factor is the percentage of actual run time versus down time that a plant is capable of. Nuclear energy is listed at 92.5% run time, natural gas at 56%, coal at 52.7%, hydropower at 38%, and wind at 34.7% (Heubl, 2019).The mining and plant operations require a consistent and reliable energy source to run their productions as any unexpected electrical down time results in high production and financial losses. Nuclear energy would provide a reliable energy source to avoid these unexpected shutdowns.

Another benefit to nuclear energy is the fact that nuclear reactors do not produce any air pollution during operation (Austin, 2017). Oil sands account for 10% of Canada’s GHG emissions, or about 0.15% of global GHG emissions (CAPP: Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, 2019). Carbon dioxide (CO2) is a GHG that is emitted by burning fossil fuels for electricity generation, industrial uses, and transportation in the oil sands (CAPP: Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, 2019). For example, for every barrel of oil produced using steam assisted gravity drainage (SAGD), a common method of bitumen extraction, 80 kilograms of CO2 is released into the atmosphere (Talk Nuclear Admin, 2011). By replacing natural gas and coal combustion with nuclear energy to create electricity, Canada could reduce the amount of GHGs being produced from the oil sands. Using a fuel source that would reduce GHG emissions and improve the current environmental impact could also help change the negative public perception of the oil sands.

Counter Arguments

Despite the arguments in favour of nuclear energy, there are some challenges that come with it. The high capital expenditures required to construct a nuclear reactor would make the transition towards nuclear energy in the oil sands appear uneconomic. The lower cost of natural gas and natural gas-powered facilities has made the transition to nuclear power difficult to justify (Rieger, 2019). However, despite the high costs associated with constructing a nuclear reactor, the transition to nuclear power can offset the high expenditures associated with constructing the reactor. The Alberta government’s study of nuclear power generation found that low-cost operations would allow initial capital expenditures to be spread out (Nuclear Panel, 2009). The cost of operating a nuclear reactor would be fairly fixed, as elements, such as uranium, used for nuclear energy would not be subject to commodity price as natural gas is (Rieger, 2019). As institutional investors have withdrawn from oil sand investments due to poor environmental performance, the development of a nuclear generator has the potential to once again attract investors to the industry (Markusoff, 2019).

Past nuclear disasters, such as those in Chernobyl and Fukushima, have resulted in heightened concerns regarding the effects of nuclear power production on public health and the environment. Improper storage, handling, and disposal of nuclear waste can lead to the release of radioactive material. Human exposure to this material can lead to long-term health complications and illness, such as kidney failure, lung problems, and even cancer (Ghose, 2017). These risks have fueled concerns that nuclear power production will lead to increases in illnesses for those in proximity to the plant. However, studies have found that the radiation dose from one transatlantic flight is 400 to 500 times higher than that from a nuclear power plant. A study also found that natural background radiation is 12,000 times higher than the nuclear radiation from a power plant (Nuclear Panel, 2009). The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) has been tasked with regulating the lifespan of all nuclear operations in Canada; this includes licencing plants that meet requirements pertaining to radiation protection, environmental protection, equipment maintenance, and emergency preparedness (Government of Canada, 2019). The Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO) of Canada has implemented a long-term nuclear waste management program based on practices from nuclear programs in France, Switzerland, Finland, and the United Kingdom (NWMO, 2020). As a result of these regulations, nuclear events between 2015 to 2019 in Eastern Canada have been minimal with no impact on the environment or public as no detectable levels of radioactive material were released (Government of Canada, 2020).

There are also concerns that the use of non-renewable uranium for the generation of nuclear power in Canada will create dependency on the resource that will leave the industry vulnerable. As of 2017, it was estimated that the world’s uranium reserves had a remaining lifespan of 80 years (Ovy, 2017). Up to 99% of uranium used for nuclear energy production can be recycled after it has been stored and allowed to cool for ten years (Nuclear Panel, 2009). Recycling the uranium reduces the volume of radioactive material being disposed of and increases the amount of energy that can be generated from the uranium. Small nuclear reactors that will not require refueling for 30 years are also being developed (OCNI, 2013). In addition to this progress, nuclear scientists are developing reactors that will be fueled by elements such as thorium, which is found in larger quantities and will result in less nuclear waste (Ovy, 2017).

Conclusion

The incomparable density of nuclear energy makes it an efficient source of power for the high demands of bitumen production. The capacity of nuclear power is 40% times higher than that of natural gas, making nuclear energy the more reliable choice for mining and in-situ operations. The complete reduction of GHG emissions during nuclear energy production would also reduce the negative environmental impacts of extracting bitumen from oil sands deposits. As with the oil and gas industry, the regulation of the Canadian nuclear industry has established standards and guidelines regarding the lifecycle of nuclear projects to mitigate harmful impacts on the public and environment. Emerging technologies are constantly being developed to ensure the longevity of the industry and resources, such as uranium, being used. Finally, the long-term financial benefits of operating a nuclear reactor would outweigh the high capital expenditures associated with its development stages. The use of small, modular, nuclear reactors to supply the energy required to remove bitumen from the oil sands in the future is feasible. The biggest obstacles to adoption would be negative public perception and initial investment costs.

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