It's Time to Nuke The Tar Sands

February 23, 2009

by Matthew McDermott, - Science & Technology

Two perennial TreeHugger subjects come together at a nexus of absurdity. We've covered Hyperion Power's (sort of) portable nuclear power module a couple of times and have given fairly extensive coverage to the environmental disaster that is the Alberta Tar Sands. Well, Hyperion's proposing mating the two: Using the Hyperion Power Module to reduce the horrendous carbon emissions produced when you squeeze oil out of the tar sands. Here's how Hyperion CEO John, R Grizz pitched it:

We have the solution to concern about the additional emissions generated by the mining and retorting of the Canadian tar sands. The new Hyperion Power Module, metaphorically a 'super thermal battery' for distributed power, was designed with this problem in mind. The HPM can be transported into remote locations to provide huge amounts of emission-free power.

OK. Let's make some big assumptions: 1) Hyperion will ever actually deliver these modules (apparently the release date for these $25 million nuclear plant on a flatbed has been pushed back another year, to 2014); 2) Generating all of the electricity at a tar sands mine through nuclear power will actually reduce emissions to a level comparable to conventional petroleum. That still won't make the tar sands any more environmentally friendly.

Boreal Forest Destruction
Companies may be required to return areas mined to the condition in which they were found prior to operations commencing, but let's face it, that's not really possible. Even if the best restoration efforts are made, the level of biodiversity remaining, as well as the type of vegetation present really won't be the same for quite a long time, if ever.

Water Usage and Toxicity
The carbon footprint of tar sands is just part of the problem. To produce one barrel of tar sands oil requires about three barrels of water. This overdrawing of water has reduced, in one example, the flow of the Athabasca River by about 29% in the summer, compared to 1970s levels. And only 5-10% of the water taken from the river can be returned to it due to toxicity. This water has to be kept in tailing ponds, some of which are up to 50 square kilometers in size. It unlikely this water can ever be made non-toxic.

First Nation Community Concerns
Then there's the issue with water quality downstream. This has been raised by First Nation communities in Alberta, which say that toxin levels in fish are on the rise, as have been unusual incidences of cancer in some areas.

This isn't the first time someone has wanted to mate nuclear power and tar sands extraction: Alberta Tar Sands Go All High Tech and Futurist

via: Business Wire (press release)