Saturday, October 4, 2008

A few long shots

Some ideas are more interesting than others

In the business of building new nuclear power plants, the so-called long shot lives in a world of speculative vision which often fails the baloney test of reality. That doesn't stop some people from trying.

ski-jumperOf course few people can ski jump, but the rest of us love to see them fly. Some people are determined to bring a vision down to earth even if it takes decades to achieve that goal. That said, the people in pursuit of these ideas are highly credible in the fields of business and engineering. That's what makes them so interesting.

Nuclear energy for Alberta

Armand LaFerrere, president of Areva Canada, is a hard headed businessman who knows how to make a buck. With Areva's massive uranium operations in that country, he makes sure every truckload of ore is measured in terms of the costs and profits of the operations. This week LaFerrere stepped off the edge of the known world and into an area where dragons are said to roam, namely the northern wilderness areas of Alberta province. According to a report in the Calgary Sun, speaking in Calgary, he told a business group focused on energy the province needs diversity in energy sources and that nuclear fits the bill.

This is a man who thinks big in a place where really big energy projects, like the tar sands oil operations, are the norm. He said the demand for energy, currently met with natural gas, makes Alberta, "one of the most promising markets for nuclear energy on the planet."

His analysis is based on the fact that the tar sands operations, which use huge amounts of natural gas, will run out of it by 2030 even though the oil resources will still be there to be dug up and processed into petroleum products. If someone started today, a new nuclear power plant could come online in revenue service by 2020 which is plenty of time for an orderly transition from natural gas.

Now it has been a dream of all kinds of people for the past couple of decades to use process heat from nuclear reactors to power the extraction of bitumen from the tar sands. Another vision is to use the very high heat of nuclear reactors to make hydrogen to refine the heavy crude oil into a more marketable commodity.

Bruce Power bought Energy Alberta last year, based on these dual concepts. Energy Alberta had proposed to build two ACR-1000 nuclear reactors in northern Alberta in part to power the tar sands operations and also to meet the province's growing demand for electricity. What hasn't been mentioned is that export of electricity to the U.S. is a major market opportunity.

Wouldn't you know it but there has been a lot of work on a high voltage electric transmission line from Lethbridge, Alberta, to Great Falls, MT. The "Montana Alberta Tie Ltd" or MATL project is a proposal for a 215 mile long "merchant" 235 Kv transmission line that would interconnect the two countries. It's a self-described "toll road" for anyone who wants to ship electricity from Alberta to Montana.

Wind farms expected to be built on the high plains of southern Alberta are said to be the primary suppliers of electricity for the line. However, the location of two nuclear power plants in the tar sands region, with an interconnect to the U.S. would add to the economic attractiveness of the new nuclear build. No wonder Areva is still in the picture.

Jamaica going nuclear?

Feed up with the high price of diesel fuel which is used to generate 95% of the island's electricity, the government of Jamaica is setting up a study group to assess the feasibility of building a small reactor. According to the Jamaica Observer, the panel will be headed up by Prof. Gerald Lalor of the University of the West Indies.

Jamaica's energy minister Clive Mullings told an engineering conference in Kingston this week he's very impressed with South Africa's work on the Pebble Bed Modular Reactor (PBMR). Lalor told the group Jamaica wants to buy commercial technology off-the-shelf and run it right out of the box. With its lower GDP/person, Jamaica can't afford a large reactor in the 1,000 Mw range.

Charles Grant, who works with Lalor at a multi-disciplinary science center in Jamaica that has a very small research reactor, told the newspaper the pebble bed technology, at about 150 Mw, would be feasible and affordable for a country like Jamaica. He added that the country needs a technology to meet baseload demand for electricity.

"With today's crisis we've been looking at alternatives but we have to bear in mind that prices of these other fossil fuels might also go the same way as oil, so you have to keep in mind more than one solution. Renewable solutions are great but you have to look at baseload capacity which is what nuclear can provide - although renewables have to be an important part of that mix."

Grant said Jamaica would seek technical assistance from the IAEA to pursue its nuclear energy vision.

Utah wants nuclear power from thorium

Utah Senator Orin Hatch, a republican, and Nevada Senator Harry Reid, a democrat, have jointly introduced legislation to support development of thorium-based nuclear reactors in the U.S. They propose to spend $250 million over five years. The dual aims of the funding would be to advance the technology and the ability of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to regulate it. The bill also calls for a demonstration project at the Idaho National Laboratory (INL). You wouldn't get a full-scale reactor for that kind of money, but you certainly would get some interesting work done.

A Utah firm Thorium Energy would benefit from the legislation were it to be enacted with funding by Congress. Thorium Energy leases the mineral rights from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) which manages federal lands in Lemhi Pass, Idaho and Montana.

In the press release, Seth Grae, president and CEO of Thorium Power (OTC:THPW) said that the bill is a terrific idea.

“It represents a major milestone toward the recognition that the nuclear renaissance can best be achieved by encouraging new and innovative fuels designs. Senators Hatch and Reid have acted today to strengthen American technology and American business to compete in the global marketplace.”

For more information, head over to Kirk Sorensen's blog Energy from Thorium and don't forget to register for the discussion forums there as well.

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