Friday, November 11, 2005

Optimizing Nuclear Power

Conventional wisdom is increasingly coming around to the idea that nuclear power will be an important contributor to meeting our needs for low-greenhouse-gas energy. While there are still groups that oppose nukes for both environmental and economic reasons, they are being undermined by market conditions and voices of dissent from within. When I look at the potential of nuclear power, though, I can't help wondering if we're looking at it in the right way. Are large, central nuclear power plants, with their issues of lengthy permitting, daunting project timelines, and large-scale waste management problems, the best way to use the power of the atom? An article from Technology Review suggests another approach, and I'm equally intrigued by the possibility of using nuclear to leverage conventional fuels.

The CEO of Total made news recently by suggesting that nuclear power could be the key to unlocking Canada's oil sands reserves. The more I've thought about this, the more sense it makes, as a specific and useful, non-traditional application of nuclear energy.

The basic problem with oil sands--or tar sands, as they were called before their PR makeover--is that it takes a lot of energy to free the liquids from the minerals that have trapped them, and to upgrade this heavy, sludgy material into something resembling the crude oil we pump out of the ground. The principal sources of that energy are Canadian natural gas, which would otherwise come to the US market to heat homes or produce electricity, and the solid residue from oil sands upgrading, which can be turned into synthetic gas. In either case, the combustion of these fuels generates greenhouse gases. When added to the emissions from burning the products made from the synthetic crude in our cars and homes, they make the environmental impact of the total oil sands cycle look pretty similar to mining and burning coal.

Generating the heat for oil sands extraction and processing from nuclear fission, rather than from methane combustion, would improve both the energy efficiency and climate change consequences of oil sands, putting them on a par with conventional crude oil. It would have the added benefit of removing a key constraint on the total volume of oil sands that can be recovered, which is currently restricted by natural gas availability. The net result would be to increase both Canadian oil sands production and natural gas exports.

What this really comes down to is asking what nuclear power can do better than other energy sources, and applying it there preferentially. That might not eliminate all opposition to nuclear power, but it would certainly make the benefits clear.

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