Nuclear energy is typically used to supply electricity, but a new generation of novel, inherently safer reactors can supply high-temperature steam for a number of petroleum, coal and chemical industry applications. Potential applications include recovery from unconventional petroleum sources such as oil sands and heavy oil, coal-to-liquids conversion, and production of hydrogen for refineries, chemical industries and possibly future transportation. Currently, natural gas is the typical source of the process heat and its use in these applications is likely to increase, as a greater reliance is placed on these resources to meet the projected growth in energy demand. This will increase greenhouse emissions from fossil fuel use. Techniques, such as carbon dioxide capture and sequestration, proposed to mitigate greenhouse gas emission from fossil-fuel based power and heat generation are in early stages of development and face technical and economic challenges. Nuclear power and heat generation emits almost no greenhouse gases. In addition, use of nuclear energy can free-up fossil fuels for other unique applications. These advantages, together with energy security concerns, improved safety and reliability, and reduced cost of nuclear plants, have renewed interest in this technology.

The paper explores the potential benefits and challenges of using nuclear energy in enhanced recovery from unconventional fossil-fuel resources. The associated economics and corresponding potential reduction in CO2 emission are examined. Both appear substantial in some applications, such as production from heavy oil reservoirs and oil sands. Economic benefits are more questionable in other applications such as in hydrogen production, and would require technological breakthroughs. Challenges facing nuclear energy include concerns of proliferation, waste disposal, public perception, demands on various resources, and licensing of novel high-temperature reactors. Resolution of power and temperature rating compatibility issues and siting constraints which may arise in some of the unconventional recovery operations will be additional challenges. However, these challenges may be less inhibiting than previously thought. The paper also briefly summarizes government-industry initiatives being discussed in the US to develop novel nuclear reactor concepts for these uses.


As has been reported widely, the world faces twin challenges of energy security and climate change, the latter attributed primarily to the use of fossil fuels. The world marketed energy consumption increased by 29% between 1990 and 2004.[1] It is projected to increase by 32% between 2004 and 2015 and by 57% between 2004 and 2030 [EIA, 2007]. In 2004, fossil fuels supplied 87% of this energy[2] and are projected to supply 86% in 2030 with a small but noticeable decrease (from 38% to 34%) in liquid fuel use (in the reference case scenario.) This projected percentage decrease in liquid fuels is expected to be offset by small projected (percentage) increases in the use of coal, gas and renewable sources [EIA, 2007; NPC, 2007]. The growth in energy use is related to both population increase and economic growth measured in per capita gross domestic product (GDP). In order to meet the demand for liquid fuels, which provide almost all the fuel for modern transportation systems, demand for recovery from unconventional resources such as heavy oil, oil sands, and oil shale will grow. In addition, efforts are underway to commercialize coal-to-liquids (CTL) technologies.

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