Climate change has been a hot topic recently, both metaphorically and literally. The UK is experiencing an unprecedented heat wave, hitting record highs in the 40s, which is causing some of their trains to shut down. We experienced some of that of our own in Canada, with last year's BC heatwave nearly reaching 50 degrees and causing huge wildfires.
To combat climate change, Pathways Alliance is looking into ways to lower greenhouse gas emissions. Pathways is a group of six of the largest Canadian oil sands providers, which are Cenovus Energy, Imperial, Conoco Phillips Energy, Suncor, MEG Energy, and Canadian Natural. Their goal is to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050, and a big part of that could be nuclear energy.
Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) are nuclear power generators that are smaller than your conventional nuclear power plants. President of Pathways Alliance Kendall Dilling explains that Pathways is exploring SMRs as a way to greatly lower its carbon footprint. It is one of many things they are looking into.
"We're looking at multiple pathways to eliminate our greenhouse gas emissions and achieve net zero. So one of those potential pathways is SMR technology. It's a little bit further down the line for us in terms of readiness, it's probably a decade away or so before it could possibly come to fruition. But we do see a lot of promise in it in terms of its application within oil sands. We are large consumers of both power and heat and SMRs can be designed to provide both of those and do so with few emissions."
Dilling explained they would use SMRs to power their oil production. Oil sands currently use natural gas boilers to produce heat and steam, which pushes the heavy oil up, but we could see SMRs take over this role.
There are many challenges in bringing nuclear power to Alberta, but the technology itself isn't an obstacle. SMR technology has been used since the 1960s in nuclear submarines. Instead, Dilling explains there are other challenges that Pathways has to maneuver, which is why we shouldn't expect SMRs until 2030 at the earliest.
"The challenge is really twofold. One is cost, they're very expensive and you trust that will come down over time. The second would be regulatory and public acceptance. In Alberta there's no nuclear right now, so we don't even have a regulatory framework for approving an SMR."
Pathways are working with regulators, the government, and stakeholders to make their goals a reality. Since Pathways is a group of 6 large companies, a project of this scale is possible.
"Something like SMRs really is impossible for any one company to do on their own. But if you do it at an industry sector level, and in partnership with government and Indigenous communities and stakeholders more broadly, that's when you can get these large infrastructure projects going. It's got to be a big broad partnership, it's not the kind of thing any one company could do on their own."
SMRs is just one of many ways Pathways hopes to achieve net zero. Dilling explained that total CO2 emissions are around 68 million tons a year, and in 2030 SMRs could eliminate 10-12 million tons, with the potential to reach 40 million. Carbon capture technology is also being used to reduce around 10-12 million tons as well. Like SMRs, carbon capturing could reduce emissions by around 40 million as well by the end of the full 3-phase expansion. Overall, there are around 80 different technologies to achieve net zero, but these are the biggest ones being explored.
While there's a possibility we could see nuclear energy come to Alberta to provide energy, rather than power an already existing source of energy like oil, Dilling said that won't be coming from Pathways.
"You need to understand where your strengths are, and we are oil and gas producers. Nuclear is a very unique skill set, so it's more likely than not you would see another third party come in and develop and operate these facilities."