Intelligent Energy

How nuclear will make oil greener

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Canada could clean up its oil sands industry by using small reactors as a heat source for energy-intensive extraction. Maybe then it would stop backing off its Kyoto greenhouse gas reduction goals.

A Canadian oil sands site near Ft. McMurray, Alberta.

Here’s a statement likely to raise the hackles of some environmentalists: Nuclear power will make oil greener, at least anywhere there are vast fields of oil sands, like in Canada.

The oil sands industry is a major reason why Canada has been steadily backing off its Kyoto Protocol greenhouse gas reduction commitments, a trend it reaffirmed on Monday when Canadian environment minister Peter Kent told reporters in Ottawa, "We will not make a second commitment to Kyoto."

Oil from oil sands has become a major export for Canada, but the extraction method accounts for about 7 percent of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions, according to the Calgary Herald. It is far more energy-intensive than conventional oil drilling. Oil sands production relies on fossil fuel-generated steam to extract sticky oil known as bitumen – or tar – out of the ground.

That’s where nuclear power can help. Most nuclear power stations are, simply put, complex steam kettles. Reactors generate heat by splitting atoms. Power plants use the heat to create steam that drives electricity turbines.

But that heat and steam can also serve non-electricity purposes, such as enabling industrial processes like those at work in the Alberta prairies.

That’s exactly what several nuclear companies including veteran General Atomics as well as smaller outfits like NuScale Power Inc., Radix Power and Energy Corp., Q-Power Corp., Hyperion Power Generation, General Fusion and Helion Energy Inc. could find themselves doing. So could thorium specialist Flibe Energy.

Each is developing a reactor that is much smaller than the typical reactor that has a gigawatt-plus capacity of a modern nuclear electricity station. (Contrary to popular belief, the Bill Gates-backed Terra Power is not focused on small reactor design, but is concentrating on a large model).

Modular nuclear reactors could arrive at on oil field on the back of a truck, as in this General Atomics mock-up.

I recently spoke with top executives from all these organizations, for an in-depth report I wrote on the future of nuclear power, published by consulting firm Kachan & Co. Many of them do indeed view the oil sands industry as a target market for their so-called “small modular reactors” (SMRs). One of them, Burnaby, Canada based General Fusion, is even partially owned by a Calgary oil sands company, Cenovus Energy.

These companies also plan to sell their small reactors as electricity generators to remote regions that today rely on diesel generators; to utilities that can’t afford a conventional-sized nuclear reactor; and to the military for both domestic bases and war zones.

Each company has its own nuclear technology that in most cases, in addition to size, departs from conventional designs in other ways as well. To mention a few: Flibe is relying on thorium, the alternative to uranium that is meant to vastly reduce weapons-proliferation risks. Radix is using a fuel called TRIGA that is not the normal mix in most commercial reactors, and which, as a safety feature, stops working as soon as it overheats.

Two of the companies – General Fusion and Helion – mark perhaps the biggest departure of all from convention, as they are developing small fusion reactors. Some people regard fusion as the Holy Grail of power generation. It combines atoms rather than splits them apart, requiring little fuel and in theory posing no melt down risk, producing little radiation, and leaving only small amounts of nasty waste.

Skeptics say that fusion remains a concept that is perennially and elusively 30 years from reality. That might be true at large government-backed international fusion projects such as ITER (International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor) in Cadarache, France, and at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory’s gargantuan laser fusion facility in Livermore, Calif.

But smaller and more nimble companies like General Fusion and Helion are making steady advances. General Fusion has secured financial backing from venture capitalists – a breed of investors not known for waiting 30 years for results. For VCs, a 5-year wait is an eternity.

Another venture-backed fusion start-up, the stealthy Tri-Alpha Energy, is working on a type of fusion that would create electricity by directly producing charged particles, bypassing steam generation.

Don’t expect to see any of these modular companies in the market for at least 5 years, and probably longer. Even if they were to perfect their designs today, they’d still have to go through the multi-year process of receiving regulatory approval. (Some of the VCs are probably hoping to cash out at milestone development moments, as opposed to waiting until commercialization).

But when they are ready, look for them in the oil prairies of Western Canada. They won’t eradicate oil’s environmental hazards The bitumen they help extract will still deposit CO2 into the atmosphere when it’s burned as fuel; the oil mining itself will scar the land; and the extraction process requires a lot of water. And, needless to say, the SMRs will have to operate safely and with absolute minimum risk of radiation leaks and weapons proliferation. I’ve had a peak at many of the safety and non-proliferation designs, and I’m impressed by the efforts so far.

By taking fossil fuels out of the fossil fuel extraction process, nuclear will at least help clean things up a bit.

Images: Top, TastyCakes via Wikipedia. Bottom, General Atomics.

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Mark Halper

Contributing Editor

Mark Halper has written for TIME, Fortune, Financial Times, the UK's Independent on Sunday, Forbes, New York Times, Wired, Variety and The Guardian. He is based in Bristol, U.K. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure