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Nuclear Power Alternative in Alberta Raising Questions of Appropriateness

Nuclear Power Alternative in Alberta Raising Questions of Appropriateness
By Dina O'Meara
27 May 2007 at 09:02 PM GMT-04:00

CALGARY (CP) -- Nuclear power might be all the rage for some interested parties in Alberta's oil patch, but others question the need for such controversial power generation in an industry that requires more steam than electricity.

While the low-emission power generated from uranium poses an alternative to coal and costly natural gas, oil companies are already moving rapidly towards cheaper, more efficient technologies than those used for the past 20 years, one representative said.

''Nuclear may be an option in five to 10 years from now, but in the meantime, people are already moving off of natural gas and moving on to other things,'' Greg Stringham, with the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers said.

Nuclear power recently has garnered increased attention through the efforts of Energy Alberta Corp., which has been lobbying industry, government and the public in Alberta to raise awareness of its benefits for the province.

The company, headed by Albertans Wayne Henuset and Hank Swartout, outgoing chief executive of Precision Drilling Trust [TSX:PD.UN], wants to invest C$6.2 billion to build at least two nuclear reactors that would generate about 2,200 megawatts of electricity.

The project has found supporters in a number of circles, including The University of Calgary's Institute for Sustainable Energy Environment and Economy, as an alternative to replace aging coal-fired plants which emit high levels of greenhouse gases.

Opponents point out the heavily subsidized nature of nuclear power in Canada, primarily in Ontario and New Brunswick, and say the citizens of Alberta would be shouldering the costs.

No oil company has publicly backed the project, including Shell Canada [TSX:SHC], which some media outlets claimed was studying the use of nuclear power in northern Alberta.

Sure Northern Energy, a subsidiary of Shell, has parcels of land in an undeveloped area of the oil sands known to be in limestone. The unconventional play requires more study to learn about its geology, before hanging on any technology to produce it, spokesman Kurt Kadaz said.

''That's why we are pursuing an appraisal program, and that's why it's too early to discuss the potential commercial project and any of its elements,'' Kadatz said.

Energy Alberta, with partner Crown corporation Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd., originally targetted the energy-hungry oil sands in its sales pitch, but has moved on to focus on Alberta in general.

''The purpose of this plant is to produce electricity only,'' spokesman Guy Huntingford said.

''Obviously hydrogen and steam are byproducts of it, but that's not why it's being built; it's being built purely for electricity, so we can place the plant anywhere.''

Huntingford estimates the province will need approximately 11,000 new megawatts of power by 2020 to satisfy growing demands by the oil sands and possible oil sands refineries.

The replacement of aging power plants, and increasing commercial and residential demands on the grid would add another 2,000 megawatts, he said.

Ensuring there would be transmission lines to move that electricity would be another regulatory hurdle, Hundingford acknowledged.

Alberta already is in the midst of often bitter discussions about a needed system expansion, a 550-kilovolt line to be added to the Edmonton-Calgary industrial corridor.

Energy Alberta plans to file a preliminary application for the project with the federal Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission in mid-June, and select a location for the proposed reactors by mid-September.

The commission said the regulatory process, including the initial environmental assessment down to the building and running licences, will take a minimum of 10 years.

In the meantime, gasification of asphaltines, the dregs of the bitumen barrel, is one process being piloted in the oil sands as an alternative fuel, and underground fires fueled by oily air is another revolutionary technology being piloted to reduce costs in the oil sands, Stringham said.

''All of those kinds of things are happening right now, and if those become very successful, then it will be a challenge for nuclear to break into that,'' he said.

''But if they do, the hydrogen, the stream and the power at low cost, no one is closing the door on it. It's just that there are other more immediate options being put in place right now.''

© The Canadian Press 2007

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