Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Toshiba Planning 4S Fast Neutron Reactor for Alberta Oilsands in 2020

An undisclosed Alberta oilsands operator is working with Toshiba to install a 10 MWe 4S nuclear reactor underground to use for in situ oilsands production by the year 2020.

The 4S reactor is a sodium-cooled fast neutron reactor operating at high temperature, capable of providing high temperature steam for steam assisted in situ oilsands production for 30 years between required refueling.

In situ oilsands production is generally cleaner and more profitable than oilsands mining.

In situ oil sands production means extracting bitumen from underground by drilling wells into the reservoir, as with conventional oil and natural gas production. This distinguishes in situ recovery from surface mining, which requires removing topsoil and other overburden and creating a large open pit mining area.

Steam-assisted gravity drainage (SAGD) is a specific form of in situ extraction. Nearly all bitumen is too viscous or thick at ambient reservoir temperature to flow on its own. It must be thinned, either through heating or by diluting it with solvents, or both. SAGD recovery involves drilling pairs of horizontal wells, one placed above the other in each pair. Steam is injected into the upper well. The steam heats the reservoir, thinning the bitumen which can then drain threw gravity to the lower well. The bitumen-water mixture (along with solvents, if applicable) is then pumped to surface.

Another common form of thermal recovery is cyclic steam stimulation (CSS). CSS or “huff-and-puff” uses vertical wells that alternate as both steam injectors and bitumen producers, creating a cycle of injection, heating and recovery from each vertical well. _Alberta Oilsands
Nuclear reactor production of steam -- particularly using a high efficiency reactor such as the 4S -- should also help profit margins. This will be particularly true as the cost of natural gas begins to climb inexorably higher with the projected greater number of uses for gas.
The firm [Toshiba] has completed a basic design for the reactor and has already started approval procedures for construction in the United States. After getting the official go-ahead from the U.S. government, Toshiba will then undergo safety checks in Canada.

Currently, oil sands are mined using boiler-generated steam. However, as this method requires natural gas to fuel the boilers, it is necessary to transport the gas as needed. Also, carbon dioxide emissions from burning natural gas is seen to be a problem.

By contrast, the planned small reactor would not require refueling for up to 30 years after construction or release any carbon dioxide. Furthermore, nuclear reactors would also be cheaper should the general price of natural gas increase.

... constructing a small reactor costs between 50 billion yen and 100 billion yen, less than 20 percent the cost of building a regular reactor. This would make the new reactor easier to introduce in frontier areas. Therefore, Toshiba has been working in Alaska and municipalities in northern Canada to introduce its small reactor as a small-scale power station. _Yomiuri

Oil production is a potentially high-profit area, which should help to provide a good return on investment in a timely manner. Once the reactor has proven itself in such applications, getting approval for a much wider range of applications should become easier.

Similar schemes using even higher temperature reactors -- such as high temperature gas cooled reactors -- could be used to produce the abundant oil shale kerogens found in the Green River formation of the US mountain west.

The use of nuclear process heat for production of unconventional hydrocarbons used as fuels, chemicals, polymers, and other materials, is likely to become routine as newer, safer, more affordable and efficient reactor designs are developed and approved.

High temperature reactors should be able to convert oilsands (Canada), heavy oils (Venezuela), kerogens (USA), coal (US, Australia, China etc.) and biomass (worldwide) to high quality hydrocarbons at costs very compatible with conventional oil production by the mid- to late 2020s, as long as the US government does not continue to stonewall new nuclear designs.

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