Alberta Flirts With Nuclear Power

Alberta nuclear power?  Seriously?

Through all the drunken rig-pigs, dynastic political parties, and random stabbings during Stampede week, I harbour a self-admitted soft spot for my home province of Alberta. It’s a place of unparalleled natural diversity and beauty, as the title image suggests. For the last year or so, I’ve followed the debate on whether the province should explore nuclear options to power Alberta’s growth. With development at the Oil Sands exploding to regurgitate the 2nd largest oil reserves on Earth, there is an obvious energy infrastructure crisis looming to provide the vast amounts of steam required to process the sticky bitumen.

The chief player in this story is one Energy Alberta Corporation, created with the expressed intent of building a nuclear plant in the province’s northern regions to provide the Oil Sands with its crack-rock. Founding the company are Calgary entrepreneurs Hank Swartout (CEO of Precision Drilling Corporation) and Wayne Henuset (co-Owner of Willow Park Wines and Spirits). One might wonder what the crunch Mr. Henuset knows about nuclear energy production, but I can vouch for his liquor store having a seriously dope collection of imported scotch whiskeys. Thinking of these two running a $6 Billion power plant conjures up images of Mr. Burns and Mr. Smithers holding down the fort at the Springfield Plant during a labour strife.

On the surface, it seems like a good idea: currently 50% of the energy that hits the provincial grid comes from coal-fired plants while another 40% comes from natural gas-fired plants. The rate of growth at the Oil Sands is such that by 2025 it’s projected to gobble up every drop of natural gas coming from the Mackenzie pipeline project. With a nuclear plant hitting the grid by 2016, we could keep that natural gas for much more important uses, like keeping those aesthetic fireplaces burning brightly at Christmastime!

But reputable thinktanks like the Pembina Institute have been long-standing detractors of nuclear power, for the finicky reason that it contaminates any ground and water it comes into contact with until the end of time. Provinces with current widespread nuclear facilities (see: Ontario), haven’t even figured out what to do with the presumably neon green material. (Aside: why not just launch it into space? It would only add to our potential gifts to extra-terrestrial life, along with radio broadcasts of Right Said Fred).

The proposed site for the facility is 30 kilometers west of Peace River, and would expect to produce about 2200 megawatts of energy for the province. Local groups are a bit twitchy about the idea of hosting a technology with a checkered past, but Energy Alberta is partnering up with Atomic Energy of Canada, the providers of made-in-Canada CANDU reactors, with all the old-fashioned gumption implied by that acronym. The CANDU system, underpinned by use of heavy water, has a good international reputation for safety and reliability. Six-shootin’ Premier Ed Stelmach has shown guarded interest in the idea, and is promising that any regulatory decision will have full input from Albertan citizens.

So what do I think of a Nuclear Alberta? I honestly think that there are a lot better options out there to satiate Alberta’s growth, like sustainable wind, solar and biomass solutions. These all have a low global warming impact, like nuclear, but don’t irretrievably harm the environment in which they serve. I mean, there has to be a less elaborate way to turn turbines than by splitting the freaking atom. Why not hire a pack of enthusiastic Border Collies to turn wheels, or maybe a project to get 10 million hamsters to run around their wheels — hook it all up! I just hate the idea that Alberta will take all of its fat-cat royalty revenues from the sale of oil, and plough them back into some $6 Billion boondoggle, when it could be using that windfall to create a true sustainable energy solution for not just the province itself, but all of Canada.

To settle the debate, here is a pretty sweet mini-documentary on the subject:

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