Molten Salt Reactors and the Oil Sands: Odd Couple or Key to North American Energy Independence?
33rd Annual CNS Conference - 2012 June 10-13

Presented at:
33rd Annual CNS Conference
2012 June 10-13
Saskatoon, Canada
Session Title:
WFS - Small Reactors

D LeBlanc (Ottawa Valley Research Associates Ltd.)


In collaboration with Penumbra Energy, Calgary Alberta:  Mark Quesada, Chris Popoff and Danny Way


    The use of nuclear power to aid oil sands development has often been proposed largely due to the virtual elimination of natural gas use and thus a large reduction in GHG emissions.  Nuclear power can replace natural gas for process steam production (SAGD) and electricity generation but also potentially for hydrogen production to upgrade bitumen for pipeline transit, synthetic crude production and even at the final refinery stage.

     Prior candidates included CANDU and gas cooled Pebble Bed Reactors.  The case for CANDU use can be shown to be marginally economic with a proven technology but with an uncertainty of current construction costs and too large a unit size (~2400 MWth).  PBRs offered modest theoretical cost savings, smaller unit size and the ability to offer higher temperatures needed for thermochemical hydrogen production from water.  Interest in PBRs however has greatly waned with the cancelation of their major South African development program which highlighted the severe challenges of helium as a coolant and TRISO fuel manufacturing. 

    More recently, Small Modular Reactors based on scaled down light water reactor technology have attracted interest but are unlikely to compete economically outside of niche applications.  However, a “new” reactor option, the Molten Salt Reactor, has been rapidly gaining momentum over the past decade.  This “new” technology was actually developed over 50 years ago as a thorium breeder reactor to compete with the sodium cooled fast breeder reactor (U-Pu cycle). During this time two molten salt test reactors were constructed. A modern version however would likely be a simpler converter design using Low Enriched Uranium but needing only a small fraction the uranium resources of LWRs or CANDUs.  Besides resource sustainability, these unique designs offer large potential improvements in the areas of capital costs, safety and nuclear waste.

    This presentation will explain the unique attributes and advantages of these liquid fuel reactors along with their obvious potential use in oil sands development for steam, electricity and thermochemical hydrogen production.  While interest in MSRs with the public, governments and the financial sector is expanding, the major development funding required and lead times of at least 10 years hinders the proving of MSR’s great potential.  Oil Sands developers are quite familiar with long development programs, have no shortage of funding, and should be attracted by the new economic realities of combined MSR-Oil Sands Projects. The public and government should be similarly motivated by the promise of a step change in environmental performance in energy development, the stimulation of jobs and creation future tax revenues on the strength of our own innovation and resources.  This “odd couple” arrangement may prove a great partnership for all and a tremendous opportunity for Canada.

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