June 2007: The Wrong "Solution" To Pollution

Nuclear power won't clean up the Alberta tar sands
June 1, 2007

The very biggest environmental issue in Canada is the Alberta oil sands project. Though only partially developed as yet, it covers 138,000 square kilometers of northern Alberta--an area as large as the state of Florida.

At yet, only the surface oil is being extracted–about 3% of the total. But already the environmental degradation is on a colossal scale. Giant machines dig up two tonnes of tar sands for every barrel of oil produced. This area is a bleak moonscape of open-pit mines and giant lakes of toxic sludge visible from outer space. The oil, or bitumen, is separated from the sand by steaming it out with water heated by gas- fired generating stations (two to 4.5 cubic metres of water to extract one cubic metre of synthetic crude oil). Getting at the deepest pockets of oil will be even more energy-intensive.

As a direct result of this project, Alberta has some of the highest per capita greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the world, three times higher than the Canadian average and six times greater than in Western Europe. Between 1990 and 2002, Alberta’s GHG emissions increased by 29%.

Since the National Energy Policy uproar in the 1970s, few federal government officials have dared challenge the Alberta oil industry. But recently, even the western-based Harper government has been suggesting that GHG emissions cannot continue to escalate at this rate.

Having waited a long time, this is precisely the climate the nuclear industry needed to step up to the plate. In October 2006, Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. (AECL) announced that it had signed a two-year exclusive deal with Calgary-based Energy Alberta Corporation to establish the CANDU reactor technology in the tar sands. Energy Alberta Corporation says it has a number of companies willing to buy power from them. They are currently looking for appropriate building sites and expect that reactors will be ready for operation in eight years.

Gary Lunn, the federal Natural Resources Minister, is actively promoting the deal. "It's not a question of if, it's a question of when in my mind," said Lunn in an interview with Sun Media. "I think nuclear can play a very significant role in the oil sands. I'm very, very keen," he continued, admitting that he had been involved in discussions on the issue. The involvement of AECL, a federal Crown corporation which has received $17 billion in subsidies over the last 20 years to build and promote CANDU reactor technology, gives the federal government a solid stake in the outcome of this discussion.

In January 2006, there was a two-day meeting in Houston, Texas, between U.S. and Canadian oil executives and government officials. The meeting was organized by Natural Resources Canada and the U.S. Department of Energy. They were discussing a five-fold expansion in tar sands production in a relatively short time-span. There was some discussion of streamlining environmental assessments. Although the federal government has denied it would ever consider this, with AECL now in the game that denial may be short-lived.

Alberta environmental groups are gearing for a fight. In December 2006, The Pembina Institute released a 130-page report: Nuclear Power in Canada: An Examination of Risks, Impacts and Sustainability.

Meanwhile, there is a nuclear revival underway in neighbouring Saskatchewan, which is the major supplier of uranium to nuclear sites around the world. With the tar sands project nearly on its doorstep and coming closer, various stakeholders are looking for a share in the bonanza.

In January 2006, the University of Regina, along with Saskatchewan’s rural and urban municipalities associations, held an industry-dominated conference called “Exploring Saskatchewan’s Nuclear Future.” Among the guest speakers was Patrick Moore, former Greenpeace activist, now promoter of nuclear energy as a response to climate change.

Clearly, there is considerable momentum on the side of proponents of nuclear expansion into the tar sands. Supporting an already environmentally destructive project by bringing in another environmentally destructive project would, in the long run, exacerbate the problem. Not only would the land be further despoiled and pillaged, but future generations would have to deal with thousands of years of nuclear waste as well. And, in the long run, it will buy nothing but a few extra years of oil dependency before we would have to get serious about exploiting alternative energy sources.

(Marita Moll is an Ottawa-based researcher and a CCPA Research Associate. This article is excerpted from Power speaks to power under the nuclear revival tent, one of the chapters in a forthcoming book from Fernwood Press, tentatively titled Climate Change and Energy Security in Canada.)