Energy security and greenhouse gas reductions are thought to be two of the most urgent priorities for sustaining and improving the human condition in the future. Few places pit the two goals so directly in opposition to one another as the Alberta oil sands. Here, Canadian natural gas is burned in massive quantities to extract oil from one of North America’s largest native sources of carbon-intensive heavy oil. This conflict need not continue, however; non-emitting nuclear energy can replace natural gas as a fuel source in an economical and more environmentally sound way. This would allow for the continued extraction of transportation fuels without greenhouse gas emissions, while freeing up the natural gas supply for hydrogen feedstock and other valuable applications. Bitumen production in Alberta has expanded dramatically in the past five years as the price of oil has risen to record levels. This paper explores the feasibility and economics of using nuclear energy to power future oil sands production and upgrading activities, and puts forth several nuclear energy application scenarios for providing steam and electricity to in-situ and surface mining operations. This review includes the Enhanced CANDU 6, the Advanced CANDU Reactor (ACR) and the Pebble Bed Modular Reactor (PBMR). Based on reasonable projections of available cost information, nuclear energy used for steam production is expected to be less expensive than steam produced by natural gas at current natural gas prices and under $7/MMBtu (CAD). For electricity production, nuclear becomes competitive with natural gas plants at natural gas prices of $10–13/MMBtu (CAD). Costs of constructing nuclear plants in Alberta are affected by higher local labor costs, which this paper took into account in making these estimates. Although more definitive analysis of construction costs and project economics will be required to confirm these findings, there appears to be sufficient merit in the potential economics to support further study. A single 500MWth PBMR reactor is able to supply high-pressure steam for a 40,000 to 60,000 bpd Steam Assisted Gravity Drainage (SAGD) plant, whereas the CANDU and ACR reactors are unable to produce sufficient steam pressures to be practical in that application. The CANDU, ACR and PBMR reactors have potential for supplying heat and electricity for surface mining operations. The primary environmental benefit of nuclear energy in this application is to reduce CO2 emissions by up to 3.1 million metric tons per year for each 100,000 barrel per day (bpd) bitumen production SAGD facility, or 2.0 million metric tons per year for the replacement of 700MWe of grid electricity with a nuclear power plant. Should carbon emissions be priced, the economic advantages of nuclear energy would be dramatically improved such that with a $50/ton CO2e at the releases expected for typical projects using natural gas, breakeven gas prices for nuclear drop to less than $3.50/MMBtu, well below the current natural gas price of $10/MMBtu for SADG steam production.

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