Canada’s provincial government of Alberta will invest CAD7m ($5.1m) into a study by oil and gas producer Cenovus Energy on how small modular reactors (SMRs) could be used for future oilsands operations. Rebecca Schulz, Alberta’s Minister of Environment & Protected Areas, told a news conference at the World Petroleum Congress in Calgary that this is “just another example of how industry dollars are being reinvested back into industry to support innovation in emissions reduction”.

Schulz, was joined by Justin Riemer, CEO of Emissions Reduction Alberta (ERA), and Laura Kilcrease, CEO of Alberta Innovates. ERA’s Technology Innovation & Emissions Reduction (TIER) fund is financing the project. According to Cenovus, the study will take several years and cost a total of CAD26m. It will focus on the feasibility of using nuclear power as an energy source to power the steam assisted gravity drainage process (SAGD) at oilsands.

Rhona DelFrari, Chief Sustainability Officer & Executive Vice President of Stakeholder Engagement at Cenovus explained:

“You use steam to inject it deep underground to loosen the oil so that you can pump it up.” Almost all of the emissions created in this type of oil sands facility are from boiling water, she continued. “So you would be eliminating the emissions because you’re eliminating the burning of natural gas to oil, the water to create the steam.”

However, she clarified that this would only eliminate emissions from operations, not consumption of the end product.

Much of Canada’s anticipated future oil production is expected to come from SAGD. The process currently uses large quantities of natural gas, available in situ, which produces considerable carbon dioxide emissions. Additional applications of nuclear power could include energy for oil sands operations generally speaking, as well as creating hydrogen from natural gas to then upgrade bitumen into synthetic crude, also known as syncrude.

The Cenovus study will build on an early-stage feasibility study prepared by Hatch Ltd for Alberta Innovates, Cenovus and TC Energy and published in August. This looked at the use of SMRs in steam-assisted gravity drainage operations in oilsands

In 2021 Alberta joined New Brunswick, Ontario and Saskatchewan in signing a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) to collaborate on SMR development. Alberta has since signed MOUs with several SMR developers including ARC Clean Technology, X-Energy and the Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute.

Schulz noted: "A few years ago, the idea of expanding nuclear energy use was on the back burner – that is no longer the case. In Alberta, small modular nuclear reactors have the potential to supply heat and power to the oil sands, simultaneously reducing emissions and supporting Alberta's energy future. This funding is the foundation for that promising future."

ERA CEO Justin Riemer said SMRs have "great potential" to supply non-emitting energy in many different applications. He added that more studies are needed to see if the technology is suitable for those industrial applications. “If so, it could be transformational for the in-situ oil sands sector and other sectors in Alberta," he said.

The adoption of SMR technology in Alberta – which does not currently have any nuclear generating capacity – would require an extensive regulatory and engagement process, but Shultz said the province is working to ensure the regulatory framework is in place and ready if private industry decides to pursue the technology.

A working group on emissions reductions set up by the government of Alberta and the Canadian federal government has agreed to begin development of a regulatory framework for SMR technology.

According to Warren Mabee, Director of the Institute for Energy & Environmental Policy at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario, there are still many unknowns with respect to the costs and efficiencies of SMRs but added that linking SMR technology to oilsands production may raise questions about whether it would be better used for other applications. However, he conceded that SMRs could start addressing the very high emissions associated with some oilsands operations. “That's a good starting point, I think," he noted.

Environmentalists are not so sure. Greenpeace Canada suggested that the push for SMRs is a "delay tactic" from the oil and gas industry. "Cenovus is one of the wealthiest companies in the country, and they can certainly pay for their own research," said Greenpeace Canada spokesperson Keith Stewart. "The notion that taxpayers are footing the bill for them to promise to do something a decade away from now is a real waste of resources that could be going into putting in solutions like renewable energy."

According to Dr Paul Dorfman, chair of the Nuclear Consulting Group and visiting fellow with the Science Policy Research Unit at the University of Sussex in the UK: “Nuclear is the weapon of choice for big oil.” Noting the long lead time to develop and regulate SMRs, they may be advantageous to the oil industry, which can continue producing during the extended regulatory and research and development periods.

A similar sentiment was expressed by Julia Levin, Associate Director of National Climate at Canada’s Environmental Defence organisation. “This is another public handout from the Government of Alberta to an extremely profitable company,” she said. “SMRs appeal to oil and gas companies as a way to delay the energy transition, given how speculative the technology is.”

Image: The Alberta government is funding research for oil giant Cenovus to use SMRs for oilsands processing (courtesy of Flickr via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-2.0))