Peter Dykstra recently pointed out that some prominent environmental veterans are talking up nuclear power as a climate change solution.
Canada was amongst the original countries to experiment with fission for commercial use and in 1962 built a small prototype, which was followed five years later by a larger 200 MWe reactor at Douglas Point, Ontario. Subsequently 34 Candu reactors have been built in seven countries but the last sale was in 1999.
Reactors run on uranium and up until 2009 Canada was the world’s largest producer of the feedstock for both commercial reactors and the weapons industry therefore the country is a major nuclear stakeholder.
Mr. Dykstra’s article suggests the unresolved questions of nuclear waste disposal, and Wall Street’s wariness about the industry are the industry’s crucial vulnerabilities.
Indicative of the latter problem was the Canadian experience with the Darlington Nuclear Generating Station in Ontario which is comprised of 4 Candu reactors that were originally project to cost $3.9 billion but ultimately were completed for $14 billion.
With respect to nuclear waste disposal however, of the few solutions itemized in Wikipedia, two, the subductive waste disposal method and the nuclear assisted hydrocarbon production method were invented in Canada by this writer but were never implemented in spite of the fact that the first has been described as the most viable solution to the problem. Yevgeny Velikhov of Russia’s Kurchatov Institute also has pointed out that of the 14 versions of liquidating nuclear waste proposed, only three can be examined seriously, shipping to the sun, putting in Antarctic ice caps and placing into the earth’s crust at great depths so that if can be melted in the plasma of the earth later.
The subductive waste disposal method , described here as the state-of-the-art solution to the problem, would do the latter.
In 1996, George Lermer, then dean of the faculty of management at the University of Lethbridge, reported that between 1947 and 1994, the Canadian government had invested $19-billion (in 2001 dollars) in the Candu program, over and above any offsetting gain to the federal government or federal taxpayers. By the time the government offloaded this liability in 2011, for a paltry $15 million, this investment had increased to over $20 billion; lost to the taxpayers in large part because of the country’s failure to deal with the waste problem and its increasing dependence on Alberta’s oil sands to fuel the country’s economy.
For decades before that nuclear power had been touted as a similar engine of economic growth as well as the remedy to climate ills.
A few days ago the energy consultancy firm of Wood Mackenzie estimated that cash flows to oil sands producers would plunge by $23 billion over the next two years and that this loss could ultimately be as high as $121 billion.
Again there are two problems that parallel those that have brought down nuclear power; cost and environmental impact. For the oil sands the latter is related to carbon dioxide emissions and water usage both of which, along with costs, are addressed by the nuclear assisted hydrocarbon production method.
As can be seen from the following diagram the in situ, steam assisted gravity drainage (SAGD), process uses steam injection to heat the viscous bitumen, which then flows to the extremities of a heat chamber where it descends to a drain where it is produced.
As can be seen from the following diagram this is very similar to the following schematic that shows how heat from nuclear waste packages would produce an umbrella effect that would keep water from entering a repository at Yucca Mountain, which would corrode and degrade nuclear waste containers and their contents.
Effectively using nuclear waste as the heat source to produce bitumen eliminates the cost of fuel, greenhouse gas emissions and the need for water to produce steam. In fact producers could charge a fee for their repositories/production facilities and as Barry Brook pointed out a few weeks ago the global budgets for managing this waste is in excess of A$100 billion or about $98 billion Canadian.
Wikipedia says that the input energy to extract and upgrade a barrel of oil is about 1.0–1.25 gigajoules and that most of this is derived from natural gas. (Some call this use of a clean energy to produce a dirtier one the Midas Touch in reverse.) As a barrel of oil equivalent is about 6.117 gigajoules, the EROEI is 5–6, which is expected to improve to 6.5 by 2015. Wood Mackenzie says the operating cost of extracting bitumen from oil sands tops out at US$37/bbl for in-situ projects so the elimination of this fuel cost would result in a saving of about $5.70 per barrel.
The Alberta government says that each barrel of oil produced by SAGD projects produces about .06 tonnes of carbon dioxide so this too would be eliminated.
Even if cost and carbon cutbacks resulting from the implementation of this method weren’t sufficient to make future oil sands development viable in light of competition for market share in a sunsetting industry, revenues from disposing of the global inventory of spent nuclear fuel would. And further the strategic necessity for eliminating waste and excess nuclear weapons material would insure the potential $121 billion oil sands cash flow losses would never come about.
Michael Bloomberg has suggested that the solution to the politically contentious Keystone Pipeline that would give Alberta a beachhead from which it could export its product to overseas markets runs through Canada. His inference is, a broader, climate-friendly deal that would more than offsets the potential impact of the pipeline is achievable and would be beneficial to both the U.S. and Canada.
Providing a profitable solution to the global nuclear waste problem would be one climate friendly offer Canada could make but not the only one. We can also provide technology that has the potential to produce the lowest cost renewable energy that in turn mitigates the cause, CO2 emissions, and the worst impact, sea level rise and storm surge, of global warming. It is a technology that also, potentially, makes Alberta’s oil sands more viable since it mitigates the environmental cost of burning this resource even as the world transitions to non-emitting sources of energy.
Instead of seeing our economy contract as a result environmental inaction Canada should be expanding its economy through the implementation of indigenous innovation that addresses climate change.