The progress of plans for new nuclear builds in Canada took a couple of unexpected turns this week. Alberta wants to study nuclear energy while Bruce Power wants to go ahead with a plan to build two or more units in the tar sands region near Peace River. However, next door Saskatchewan popped up this week "encouraging" TransCanada, the owner of Bruce Power, to look east for a location for the new reactors.
Hal Kvisle, TransCanada's CEO, told the Calgary Herald, "there may be better places to go than Peace River."
Bruce Power purchased the assets and rights of Energy Alberta earlier this year along with an assumed commitment to build two AECL ACR1000 reactors. That situation has changed recently with Bruce Power now saying it will open the new build to competition.
Alberta's nuclear study
The provincial government in Alberta this week appointed an expert panel to prepare a report on nuclear energy. The government does not have a policy position on the use of nuclear power. There are multiple proposals to use nuclear energy for process heat, steam, and electricity to extract oil from the tar sands.
The new panel is composed of industry and academic energy experts in Canada. It has a broad brief. According to World Nuclear News, the agenda includes; environmental, health and safety issues; waste management; comparison of nuclear energy with other electricity generation technologies; current and future nuclear power generation being used in Canada and worldwide; and Alberta's future electricity needs.
The panel has also been asked to examine social issues and concerns related to nuclear energy. The Provincial Energy Strategy, expected to be completed later this year, will also be reviewed by the expert panel to examine how nuclear power fits into an Alberta context. The panel is expected to submit its report to the government in late 2008.
Experts charged with bias
The panel drew immediate heat from opposition politicians and environmental groups. They charged that the panel did not include anyone who is skeptical of nuclear energy.
NDP Leader Brian Mason said, "They've predetermined that they are going to get advice in favour of nuclear power from this panel, and will then be using that information to try and convince a very skeptical public."
Energy Minister Mel Knight defended the makeup of an expert panel on nuclear safety, rejecting criticisms that it has a pro-nuclear bias.
Knight stressed the newly created four-member panel isn't being asked to decide whether Alberta should open its doors to nuclear power. That decision, he said, will be made by the government after it seeks input from Albertans
At the same time Canada's Alberta Research Council and the Idaho National Laboratory (INL) have agreed to study energy options for Alberta including the use of advanced nuclear energy technologies. This is a separate project which is a joint scientific effort between the two R&D organizations.
Saskatchewan seeks Bruce reactor
In his remarks this week CEO Kvisle said while TransCanada supports Bruce Power's nuclear pursuits in the province, a compelling and logical argument can be made that Saskatchewan, the source of most of the nuclear fuel used in North America, would be a better home. Peace River is also a long ways north and power transmission would add expense.
"Saskatchewan should think about value-added upgrading of that fuel," Kvisle said. "Also, in Saskatchewan there is increasingly a comfort level with the merits of nuclear power. Of course, in every jurisdiction there are people opposed to it."
His comments probably come as a surprise to Bruce Power CEO Duncan Hawthorne who reportedly could not be reached for comment in response to Kvisle's statement.
Earlier this month Provincial Governor Brad Wall won concessions from the U.S. and the Nuclear Suppliers Group in his quest to develop a uranium enrichment plant in the U.S. If built it would compete head-to-head with the new plant being built in New Mexico by Louisiana Energy Services and the American Centrifuge plant being built by USEC in Ohio.
With Saskatchewan's political leadership in hot pursuit of the capability to enrich uranium for export to world markets, it looks like their "encouragement" of Trans Canada is part of a plan to develop some home grown demand for it as well. A related issue is now that Saskatchewan is apparently on the path to uranium enrichment, the question is asked who will build it?
What about Areva?
The wild card in the mix is that Areva has not yet announced the location of its new proposed uranium enrichment plant in the U.S. The company's executive committee met nearly a month ago to consider five potential sites, but the firm has been silent since then.
This has raised speculation that the firm may be looking at Saskatchewan's drive for a new plant. The province is home to one-third of the world's uranium and Areva is a major player in the Canadian mining world. The question is whether Wall made a late pitch to the French nuclear giant derailing its stately corporate process of deciding on a U.S. location? One of Arveva's problems, especially if the Canadians really aren't ready for a uranium enrichment plant, is how to say 'no' to Saskatchewan and also not jeopardize its extensive mining operations in that province.
There may be other reasons why Areva hasn't announced its choice for the location of a new uranium enrichment plant including the current U.S. financial meltdown and the claims of other priorities on executive time.