Canada’s Alberta province is investing C$7 million (about $5.2 million) to help Cenovus Energy study how small modular reactors could be used in northern Alberta to decarbonize oil sands production and what additional information might be needed to pursue their regulatory approval.
The “enabling” study, according to the government’s September 19 announcement, will look at whether SMR technology could be applied to steam-assisted gravity drainage projects in the oil sands, which drill into the reservoir and inject steam to soften the oil. Alberta Innovates, a provincial crown corporation, recently released a study on the feasibility of using SMRs in steam-assisted gravity drainage operations. The announcement termed the study “an early step to see if the technology could be part of Alberta’s long-term solutions to reducing emissions from industry operations.”
Government funding for the new, multiyear Cenovus study comes from the province’s Technology Innovation and Emission Reduction fund via Emissions Reduction Canada’s Industrial Transformation Challenge. The project’s total cost is estimated to be C$26.7 million (about $19.8 million).
Cenovus Energy is based in Calgary, with operations that include oil sands projects in northern Alberta, thermal and conventional crude oil and natural gas projects across western Canada, crude oil production offshore of Newfoundland and Labrador, and natural gas and liquids production off the coast of China and Indonesia. The company’s downstream operations include upgrading, refining, and marketing operations in Canada and the United States.
Official words: “A few years ago, the idea of expanding nuclear energy use was on the back burner—that is no longer the case,” stated Rebecca Schulz, Alberta’s minister of environment and protected areas. “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. I want to thank Cenovus Energy and Emissions Reduction Alberta for their leadership in this work.”
Both Justin Riemer, chief executive officer at Emissions Reduction Alberta, and Rhona DelFrari, chief sustainability officer and executive vice president of stakeholder engagement at Cenovus, expressed agreement with the minister’s take on SMRs.
Riemer, while acknowledging that “further studies like this are needed to see if the technology is suitable for those industrial applications,” said that SMRs “could be transformational for the in situ oil sands sector and other sectors in Alberta.”
DelFrari called the study a “great example of the collaborative approach we’ll need to help us reach our ambition of net-zero emissions from our operations by 2050,” adding, “We’re exploring multiple technologies that would help significantly reduce our emissions, and small modular reactors show potential. This study will help us understand if this possible solution is economical and technically viable.”
Background: On March 28 of last year, the governments of four Canadian provinces—Alberta, New Brunswick, Ontario, and Saskatchewan—published a plan outlining the path forward for the advancement of SMRs.
The 60-page document, A Strategic Plan for the Deployment of Small Modular Reactors, built on an SMR feasibility study conducted under a memorandum of understanding signed in 2019 by the premiers of Ontario, New Brunswick, and Saskatchewan and in 2021 by the premier of Alberta. Prepared by Ontario Power Generation, Bruce Power, New Brunswick Power, and SaskPower, the study concluded that SMR development would support domestic energy needs, curb greenhouse gas emissions, and position Canada as a global leader in clean technologies and the fight against climate change.