Oil's new friend: nuclear

The Calgary Herald
Fri 23 Sep 2005
Page: A28
Section: The Editorial Page

Technical marvel though oil extraction around Fort McMurray is, the process still suffers from one drawback: To get oil, one has to burn fossil fuels.

Thus, for every 12 barrels of oil produced in mines at Fort McMurray, the energy equivalent of one barrel is used generating process steam and electricity. For a steam assisted gravity drainage project, it's more like one barrel of oil to produce six. The whole thing starts to look a bit like running down an up-escalator.

Enter French oil giant Total SA, fresh from gobbling up Calgary-based Deer Creek Energy, asking what about a 500-megawatt nuclear plant to generate steam and electricity?

What indeed? No new nuclear plants have been built in North America for years, a consequence of widespread public perceptions that they are: a) dangerous and b) produce radioactive waste that will be a hazard for thousands of years. Who wants to live near one?

Yet, people do, in Ontario -- with no great harm.

They also enjoy cheap electricity. And those who believe that CO2 produced in the burning of fossil fuels causes the sort of climate change that leads to more ferocious hurricanes in Louisiana can celebrate the fact nuclear reactors produce no greenhouse gases. And if there really is a connection, it's worth noting hurricane Katrina killed far more North Americans (nearly 1,000) than nuclear accidents have (none).

As for the waste, a year's worth of it from a reactor the size proposed by Total, wouldn't fill your spare bedroom. Indeed, the volume of all the waste from all Canadian reactors in the last 47 years is less than half of the municipal waste generated by Toronto in one day, according to the Canadian Nuclear Society (www.cns-snc.ca/media/CNS_Position_Papers/NWMO_presentation.pdf)

No doubt, building a nuclear reactor in Alberta will be decided on emotion, not science. Alberta Premier Ralph Klein, for example, gave an emotional denunciation of the idea when questioned about it Thursday at the Global Business Forum in Banff.

"Nuclear is probably the least acceptable at this particular time because we do have a policy in this province of developing every other kind of energy other than nuclear," the premier said. "If the environmentalists go nuts over building a dam, can you image how they would react to a nuclear power plant?"

Still, we'd like to hear Total make the case.

Total cautions any use of nuclear power in Fort McMurray is 15 to 20 years away. And the Alberta Chamber of Resources notes there are many practical difficulties, including the problem of pumping steam from a fixed plant to many widely distributed well pairs.

One thing's for sure: The more expensive natural gas becomes, and the more important it becomes to reduce CO2 emissions, the better nuclear is going to look.