A nuclear reactor to clean up the oil sands industry

For environmentalists, there's nothing like a Canadian tar sands company as a whipping boy. But a novel nuclear reactor could help things scrub up out on the Saskatchewan prairie.
Written by Mark Halper, Contributor
Hart of gold. Northern Nuclear chief engineer Ralph Hart said that his company's high temperature reactor could provide process heat to the oil sand industry and electricity to an Arctic gold mining operation.


The oil sands industry is a favorite whipping boy among environmentalists, not only because its end product is oil, but also because it ticks a number of  "no no" boxes.

Chief among its ecological infractions: Its oil extraction process is itself CO2-intense. Yanking a sticky oil known as bitumen from sandy undergrounds requires a lot of CO2-emitting fossil fuels that provide the heat that generates steam that coaxes the tar out of its trappings. It spews about 20 percent more C02 than does conventional oil production.

This unconventional oil source, largely associated with Canada and that country's energy boom, is responsible for a whopping share of the CO2 footprint there -  seven percent last time I checked. It's the nation's fastest growing CO2 polluter, according to Bloomberg.

The industry faces serious pressure to slash its carbon footprint. Among the measures it is considering: Using small nuclear reactors as clean, CO2-free heat sources. A nuclear reactor is, after all, a heat producer in which the heat typically boils water to create steam to drive an electricity turbine.

But that clean heat could go to work feeding high temperature industrial processes, especially if the reactor were a "high temperature" one that operates at somewhere in the 500-to-900 degrees C range. That's much hotter - and, counterintuitively typically safer - than today's reactors which might not raise the mercury sufficiently for industry.

I've written about several reactor companies that are working on such machines, with the oil sands industry in their sights (see links below). Let me now briefly tell you about another: Cambridge, Ontario based Northern Nuclear Industries Inc. Northern has developed a type of reactor known as a "pebble bed" that will burn pebbles of solid uranium at up to 950 degrees C - once it perfects materials - and produce steam at pressures highly useful in the oil fields.

"Pressure is of primary importance for our specific target market for process heat, such as the...projects in Alberta and Saskatchewan," Northern Nuclear chief engineer Ralph Hart told me after I met him at the Thorium Energy Alliance Conference in Chicago last month, where presenters provided details of alternative reactor types, including some running on thorium fuel instead of uranium. (Hart said that thorium could double the length of his fuel cycle from three or four years to about seven, but that he is starting with uranium because there is an established supply chain).

Hart is also targeting Arctic communities and mining operations - including a gold mine - which could use a small reactor rather than expensive diesel generators as an electricity source.

The reactor, called the LEADIR-PS100 will use liquid lead as its coolant. The choice of lead is no accident, as lead's boiling point is 1700 degrees C, virtually eliminating the chance that the coolant would ever disastrously evaporate away (today's reactors tend to use water coolants). The "PS" indicates the "passive safety" that's inherent in the elimination of an outside power source required to operate safety systems. LEADIR-PS100 would harmlessly shut down in the event that things go skew-whiff, Hart said.

I won't go into more technical details in this short blog post, other than to say, for the more technically minded among SmartPlanet readers, that Northern has recently switched to a "pebble bed"  design from a "prismatic" one. Oh, and at a rating of 100 megawatts thermal (35 Mw electric) and with dimensions of about 2-to-3 meters by 7 meters, the reactor is transportable across prairie and tundra.

Northern joins a growing list of companies like Canada's Terrestrial Energy that is targeting oil sands. The interest from oil is beginning to feel real.  A few years ago, the Petroleum Technology Alliance Canada (PTAC) issued a request for proposals for such reactors. One Canadian oil company, Cenovus, has invested in a Vancouver-area nuclear fusion developer called General Fusion as has, incidentally, Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos.

As I wrote earlier this week, alternative reactor momentum is building, geared largely around high temperature operations.

Nuclear heat won't eradicate some of the other environmental concerns associated with tar sands production, like land and water decimation. But by slashing the carbon footprint, it will be taking a huge ecological stride.

And if oil companies care to invest in the development of LEADIR or its competitors, they could seed an alternative nuclear industry that could provide clean and safe heat and electricity to industry and people the world over.

Photo of Ralph Hart at the Thorium Energy Alliance Conference, Chicago, by Mark Halper

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