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Nuclear could extend oil supply

| September 12, 2005 12:00 AM

To the Editor:

Not since the energy crisis in the 1970's has interest in Canada's tar sands oil deposits been so strong. High oil prices, traumatic events in Louisiana, problems in major oil-producing countries and rapid depletion of the world's easy-to-produce petroleum have coincided with rising global demand for oil.

The Athabasca tar sands deposits in Alberta hold an estimated 1.8 trillion barrels of low-grade oil. Since 1996, major oil companies have invested $23 billion to convert this enormous resource into synthetic crude oil. And the oil industry has announced plans to spend an additional $37 billion to expand production from the present level of 500,000 barrels a day to 2.5 million barrels by 2010. By comparison, the United States today imports about 2.4 million barrels a day from Saudi Arabia.

What's remarkable about the prospect of obtaining gasoline from tar sands oil is that the refining process requires another energy source that's usually not linked to oil - nuclear power. With synthetic crude oil from tar sands coming south from Canada, U.S. refineries will need large amounts of hydrogen to convert the synthetic crude into gasoline. At present, the hydrogen is produced from natural gas but it's safe to assume that high-priced natural gas will not be used for this purpose much longer. Nuclear power can substitute for natural gas in producing hydrogen that will keep refineries at full throttle.

Technology is already available for the production of hydrogen at existing nuclear power plants. Hydrogen can be produced easily from water anywhere electricity is available. The process is called hydrolysis, in which electricity is used to separate water into hydrogen and oxygen. The best way to make the large amounts of hydrogen needed for refining gasoline - and eventually for fuel cells to run cars - is with electricity made from nuclear power, because it's the only energy source that can produce abundant electricity without emitting global warming gases.

Congress recently authorized projects to get hydrogen production under way. The newly-enacted energy legislation provides $100 million to produce hydrogen at two operating nuclear power plants. And the measure earmarks $1.25 billion for construction of a large high-temperature gas-cooled reactor at the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory to produce both electricity and hydrogen.

Because they are closest to the Canadian tar sands, it seems likely that one or more nuclear power plants in the upper Midwest will be equipped with electrolyzers to make hydrogen for distribution to nearby refineries.

The idea that nuclear-generated electricity could be used to extend the world's oil supplies might have seemed improbable at one time. But it no longer does. They key to hydrogen production - and opening up the enormous deposits of tar sands oil found not only in Canada but also in Venezuela and other countries - is nuclear power. With an expansion of nuclear power, we can provide the electricity we need, combat the greenhouse effect and maintain our energy security. Every country would be better off.

Robert Grimesey