Canada’s Oil Hotspot Considers Going Nuclear

By Haley Zaremba

Calgary Skyline

Canada’s oil sands produce some of the dirtiest oil on the planet. Their abnormally high carbon emissions have earned Albertan oil a soiled reputation not just among environmentalists, but among many politicians and their constituents as well. Now, Alberta is trying to win back some favor with a new, revolutionary plan to clean up their oil sands by turning to an unlikely adversary–the nuclear energy industry.

A United States Congressional Research Service report released back in 2012–when the potential approval of the Keystone XL pipeline crossing the U.S.-Canada border was an extremely contentious political hot topic (as it continues to be today)–estimated that the Canadian oil introduced to U.S. markets via the heavily debated pipeline “would be the equivalent of boosting U.S. global-warming emissions by between 0.06 percent and 0.3 percent per year” according to reporting by the Washington Post. “At the high end, that’s like putting 4 million extra passenger cars on the road.”

An op-ed in the New York Times summed up the issue of just how filthy the oil sands are with even more clarity and a healthy dose of vitriol: “Canada’s tar sands, deposits of sand saturated with bitumen, contain twice the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by global oil use in our entire history. If we were to fully exploit this new oil source, and continue to burn our conventional oil, gas and coal supplies, concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere eventually would reach levels higher than in the Pliocene era, more than 2.5 million years ago, when sea level was at least 50 feet higher than it is now. That level of heat-trapping gases would assure that the disintegration of the ice sheets would accelerate out of control. Sea levels would rise and destroy coastal cities. Global temperatures would become intolerable. Twenty to 50 percent of the planet’s species would be driven to extinction. Civilization would be at risk.”

Now, just last month, reporting on new data has revealed that these descriptions of the dirtiness of Canadian oil sands crude are not hyperbolic but possibly even significantly understated. When measurements of Canada’s oil sands CO2 emissions were “collected using internationally recommended methods,” scientists from Environment Canada “ found CO2 emission intensities up to 123 percent higher than current estimates”.

With this kind of public image, it’s easy to see why Alberta has gotten creative in its efforts to clean up its crude along with its reputation. This is where the Albertan government’s unlikely alliance with the nuclear energy sector comes into play. The strategy is to use small-scale modular nuclear reactors to power oil sands facilities with ultra low-emissions energy. In addition to electricity, the reactors would also produce steam and hot water, all of which are crucial components of crude oil production in the Albertan oil sands. Canada’s CBC describes the term “small modular reactor” as a “catch-all for units that produce less than 300 megawatts electric (MWe),” going on to specify that “some are small enough to fit in a school gym.”

John Stewart of the Canadian Nuclear Association told CBC that “Alberta’s always been a place where people are open to ideas,” making the oil sands’ province the perfect region to try out the novel new idea before reproducing it on a larger scale. Even if the small modular nuclear reactors are a success, however, a lot stands in the way of them becoming the new oil sands industry standard, namely high construction and production costs and bureaucratic roadblocks.

That being said, the small modular nuclear reactors are much cheaper to build and get online than a standard nuclear plant and can the units can be standardized and mass-produced to then be assembled on-site. “Due to their size, they require less complex engineering for heat removal and smaller buffer zones than large reactors while having enhanced safety features” reports CBC.

If the Albertan oil sands nuclear experiment is successful, it could lead to great improvements to Canada’s overall emissions and could possibly even lead to other regions and nations following suit.

By Haley Zaremba for