Support journalism that lights the way through the climate crisis by June 3

Goal: $100k

The pressing global need to slash emissions in the face of a growing climate crisis is driving renewed interest in nuclear power — and few places more so than in Canada's oilsands.

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

“Without a doubt the oilsands is the biggest market for small modular reactors in Canada," said John Gorman, president and chief executive of the Canadian Nuclear Association. "It's something that some companies are very actively looking at."

Small modular reactors are a type of nuclear design that is far smaller than a traditional nuclear reactor. Generating between 10 and 300 MW of energy, SMRs are fully scalable and are designed to be built economically in factory conditions, rather than on site like a large-scale conventional reactor.

While SMRs are not yet commercially available, the technology is getting close. The International Atomic Energy Agency estimates that nearly 100 SMRs could be operating around the world by 2030. In Canada, four provinces — New Brunswick, Ontario, Saskatchewan and Alberta — have agreed to collaborate on 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 large range of new uses.

Proponents say SMRs could potentially be used not only to provide clean electricity to smaller electricity grids, like those in rural areas, but also to provide heat for natural resource industries. In the oilsands, operators use massive amounts of high-temperature heat to produce the steam needed to extract bitumen from sand — and they get that heat by burning natural gas.

In total, the oil and gas industry is responsible for 30 per cent of Canada's natural gas consumption, which means confronting the industry's fossil fuel usage will be key if Canada is to meet its climate commitments.

The oilsands industry itself — through an organization called Pathways Alliance, which is made up of Canadian Natural Resources Ltd., Cenovus Energy Inc., ConocoPhillips Canada, Imperial Oil Ltd., MEG Energy Corp. and Suncor Energy Inc. — has committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions from oilsands production by 22 million tonnes annually by 2030, and reaching a goal of net-zero emissions by 2050.

To help get there, the Pathways Alliance has proposed a major carbon capture and storage transportation line that would capture CO2 from oilsands facilities and transport it to a storage facility near Cold Lake, Alta. That project alone could deliver about 10 million tonnes of emissions reductions per year and could be up and running by the end of the decade.

Canada's #Oilsands look into use of nuclear power as 'net zero changes everything'. #NuclearPower #SMRs

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

"Absolutely, we are looking at SMRs as a low or no-emission source of the high temperature heat we need," said Martha Hall Findlay, chief climate officer for Suncor Energy Inc. "But it has to be economically viable. It has to make sense."

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

"It's Canada — it takes a really long time to build anything," she said. "But if we want to see implementation by 2030, or into the early 2030s, we have to be doing this stuff now. We have to be looking at it now."

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

But he said the industry's new target of net-zero emissions "changes everything."

"We can no longer just do the things we were going to do to reduce emissions. Optionality has fallen off the table for us," Wicklum said. "In an emissions elimination paradigm, there's no question that nuclear is being taken very seriously."

However, Wicklum added that for any large-scale emissions reductions projects to get off the ground, governments and industry will have to come to an agreement about whose responsibility it is to pay for them.

"Industry is looking to the federal government to say, 'make it worth our while', he said. "They want more taxpayer dollars. They've essentially said there's not enough public support right now for them to act. And because of that, I think, the feasibility of SMRs — as well as carbon capture and storage, and so on — is completely in question."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 17, 2022.

Companies in this story: (TSX:TKTK)

Keep reading

Yet again the oil industry looks to government for subsidies, when they already get billions, and have just been nakedly profiteering by raising gas and oil prices in the after-effects of the Russia Ukraine war. This story really could have benefitted from asking someone outside the narrow oil sands industry about how crazy this idea of using nuclear reactors is.

No more fossil fuel subsidies!
O&G companies reporting record profits propose a BS climate solution with taxpayers picking up most of the tab.

Clean-up, reclamation, and emissions reduction are all standard costs of doing business. No way should taxpayers be on the hook for industry's business expenses. Polluter pay.
Why don't we pay for Cenovus Energy's pencils and paper too? Poor CEO Alex Pourbaix probably needs a new jet as well.
Did it never occur to oilsands companies that they should set funds aside from windfall profits and use them to cover business expenses? Save for a rainy day?
Why should taxpayers give these guys a nickel?
Staggering entitlement in the O&G industry.
Privatize the profits, socialize the costs. The fossil fuel industry's business model.
If oil and gas companies believe carbon capture (CCS) and SMRs are an efficient way to cut emissions, they are welcome to pay for them.
Of course, reducing upstream emissions does nothing to cut the 80–90% of emissions generated from a barrel of oil downstream at the consumer end.
SMRs and CCS perpetuate the O&G industry. Fossil fuels for longer. More emissions, not less. A plan to "green" fossil fuels, not get off them. These fake climate solutions keeps us hooked on fossil fuels — not a transformative solution.

SMNRs (they always omit the word nuclear) are at best glossy PowerPoints to suck down more subsidies for the nuclear industry. Factories? They've been watching too many Marvel comics movies.

This story is not necessarily about small modular nuclear reactors. Rather, it relates directly to the role of the internal combustion engine in society, something completely ignored in the piece. Without gas tanks feeding cars that combust oil sand's products, there will be no need for SMRs acting in the perverse role of continuing our carbon dependency. SMRs connected directly to the grid is another story, and that will likely be the most feasible role for them instead of diverting them into melting sludge from the earth.

>> "Absolutely, we are looking at SMRs as a low or no-emission source of the high temperature heat we need," said Martha Hall Findlay, chief climate officer for Suncor Energy Inc. "But it has to be economically viable. It has to make sense."

Economically viable ... exactly.

With demand for EVs in the US now at a record 6% and an industry not able to meet it yet due to supply chain shortages and a lack of charging stations, there will be an economic response. Ditto in Canada. BC has the highest rate of EV sales in the nation with Quebec a close second, even so, supply can't currently meet demand. BC Hydro expects ~50,000 EVs a year will be sold by 2026 in the province. They are supposedly ready, but that will be doubtful in the 2030s as power demand skyrockets as electrification demand reaches more parts of the economy beyond transportation.

Car companies, who are the primary market for oil sands products, are now scrambling to address the microchip shortage and are also buying in to lithium mining companies to have better control over supply and price of batteries. TSMC, the world's premier advanced microchip maker, based in Taiwan, is nearing completion of a second plant in the US, which will address the chip shortage. Others like Intel are catching up. All major car makers are investing hundreds of billions into retooling for EVs, and many governments are providing funding for charging networks. Research into batteries has made great leaps forward, and less costly alternatives are now on the viability list, tech that uses iron, phosphates and sodium to displace cobalt and some rare elements. Stationary power storage will likely head away from lithium altogether, which should offer relative conservation of Li for mobility uses. Urban transit projects are ramping up in Canada too, all further dampening demand for oil in transportation.

There's lots more bad news just over the horizon for the oil sands, but the fact is that EV demand recently doubled in the US from 3% to 6% (the main destination for pipelines radiating from Alberta), and will double again repeatedly into double digits as supply issues and costs are addressed.

Given this reality, the advent of SMRs is just a side issue to the main story of the eventual erosion of the demand for liquid petroleum in land transport. One would think the Alberta government would be on top of the issue, but the evidence points to a continuance of the total subservience of government to the fossil fuel industry with the taint of populist extremism thrown on top. The Alberta Sovereignty Act is just one example of the silliness that blinds Alberta leaders to the real facts of economic life where all their eggs are in one petroleum basket.

On SMRs, Matt Farrell provides one of the most balanced views I've read.

In addition, Alberta is now one of the most competitive jurisdictions for solar and wind power. Edmonton recently contracted to buy significant amounts of power from a large wind power operation. The largest solar farms in Canada are now being built in southern Alberta and some have received years of pre-sold orders for power. The private sector auction rates for renewable power competitions are now low enough in Alberta to outcompete gas.

It may be a dream at present, but one can be forgiven for envisioning Alberta without a high carbon or nuclear footprint in the far future based on pure economics alone.

Funny. At the end the piece says it's a "report by The Canadian Press", but it sure looks to me more like an oil industry press release dropped on some Canadian Press reporter and published unchanged under the reporter's name. That, by the way, has been common practice for decades.


If the cost of small nukes really was calculated “all-found”—that is, including both the product (bitumen smelted/distilled out of sand) and the waste (CO2, CH4 and other GHGs plus nuke waste—the whole biz would be infeasible. Sovereign Canadian governments ( nearly all eleven of them) make a lot of money from petroleum products and are apparently jumping at what looks superficially like a ‘solution’ to the bitumen industry’s biggest drawback: the CO2 emitted just to cook a barrel of sludge out of its sandy matrix—almost as much CO2 as that barrel of diluted bitumen emits when it is combusted itself. It is the dirtiest, not the “most ethical” source of petroleum fuel.

Yes, true, nukes, instead of natural gas, could provide the heat to cook the goo out of the gum, saving that much CO2, but that barrel of low-quality diluted bitumen (diluted with a gasoline-like solvent so it’ll flow through a pipe) still needs special refining, at extra cost, to deal with its heavy count of “ash”—mainly sulphur—, still fetches a low price that needs to be subsidized, and still pollutes the atmosphere when consumed.

But the prospect of addressing bitumen-sands’ damning downside is so thrilling for a desperate industry and hungry governments that the many costs and risks of small nukes are overlooked. The stuff is dangerous by itself and, even if risks are ameliorated in the field, there’s still the ‘small matter’ of nuclear waste disposal which, I’m convinced, has not been satisfactorily solved. Big Bitumen and governments’ enthusiasm would obscure this nagging fact.

Sure, try a pilot project out under strict and accountable supervision, but industry should neither be publicly subsidized nor expect regular operational use of small nukes, nor should it imagine an opportunity to expand production. The objective is to wind the industry down over the next 30 years or so.

We should stop debating this technique with further-added euphemisms that obscure the cost of any petroleum development and use. We might start by referring to the so-called “oil sands” as “bitumen sands”—bitumen is not oil: it is the lowest grade of petroleum next to asphalt. Added to its problems is the nature of its deposit: mixed with sand. Indeed, the stuff’s problematic all down the line, from the bitumen mines to the stuff’s final combustion into the atmosphere.

Conclusion: “Net Zero” is bullshit.