PEACEFUL ATOMS

by BERNARD A HODSON

Canada has the safest nuclear reactors for power generation in the world and is sitting on more unexploited oil than exists in the Middle East. Yet Canada does nothing about it, preferring to let environmentalists kill off our lakes, fish, and other species with hydrocarbon-generated electricity, while wallowing helplessly as the Middle East nations dictate how much we will pay for its oil. Canadian nuclear power is safe, as are the French nuclear power generators which,in that heavily-populated country, supply 90 per cent of their power needs. Hydro electric power would usually be preferable, but that is nearing capacity. Meanwhile, it appears that there's a behind-the-scenes battle brewing. The nuclear industry wants to build new plants, arguing that nuclear power can reduce carbon dioxide emissions. But officials at Environment Canada would prefer to see nuclear phased out in favour of conservation, hydroelectricity and renewable energy. There is also a nuclear solution to our currently high gasoline prices, as an alternative to Middle Eastern oil.

Forty years ago, I was the Canadian involved in a study that looked at using atomic energy to release the oil in Alberta's tar sands. The plan was feasible, but it was killed by a short- sighted politician. It is time to reactivate this plan.

The Alberta tar sands contain more oil than the entire Middle East oil fields combined. The problem is how to extract the heavy oil.

At the surface it is possible to strip the "overburden" and treat the tar sands with chemicals and hot water, a process that took many years of experiment to get working economically. The end product is liquid crude oil and beautiful sand. Further underground there were experiments to see if setting the tar sands on fire could liberate the oil from the sands. Two wells were drilled a number of metres apart. Air was blown down one, with the other well being ignited by an incendiary device. As the fire moved along from one well to the other it would cause oil to be liberated, which could then be extracted normally. The process is known as "reverse combustion."

At the beginning of the 60's, researchers were looking a whether it was feasible to explode a pattern of nuclear bombs underneath the very deep sands and release the oil. The theory was that the shock wave from the nuclear explosions would crack the oil, making it more fluid, and the heat generated would cause the oil to flow conventionally. The project was a joint venture between Imperial Oil and Richfield Oil of Los Angeles. The Richfield senior engineer involved lived next door to Richard Nixon, who later became president of the United States. My role was to assess the feasibility and develop an exploitation plan. As a theoretical physicist I had also studied atomic physics so was reasonably familiar with the jargon.

Several unclassified documents on atomic weapons were given to the investigating team. These explained how a one kilotonne device, when exploded well under the tar sands, would create a cavern 60 metres in diameter with more than 99 per cent of the radiation trapped in rock glass created by the explosion. The cavern would then collapse inward from the weight of the rocks above it and what little radiation there was, not contained in the glass, would be contained within the debris. To many people anything nuclear creates a brick wall of hostility and they carry out ill informed demonstrations. But the residents of Nevada have been in the neighbourhood of scores of underground nuclear explosion without undue effect. For the Alberta project the explosions would have taken place several hundred metres below the surface, with zero chance of radiation leakage. As in Nevada there would have been some minor earth tremors, but nothing worse than the mild earthquakes we feel regularly in Ottawa.

An experiment was conducted in Nevada to establish the theory of whether nuclear explosions could generate oil from tar sands. It involved placing a bomb at the end of a tunnel shaped as a letter J. In the straight part of the J, samples of tar sands were placed at known intervals. When the bomb exploded the curved part of the J was sealed by the explosion. The experiment proved the feasibility of the theory but there were still several questions that needed answering. One of these was whether geological conditions in Nevada would be similar in Alberta.

The project team often had bizarre conversations. Rocks behave very differently under extreme heat and pressure, so it was necessary to ask a number of questions in relation to these conditions in an Alberta context, asking for what are known as "equations of state". The respondents to whom the questions were addressed were in a Catch 22 situation. If a question was asked and they replied, either negatively or positively, either way could be interpreted as giving away classified information. To solve the problem, the team was given access to a non classified but undocumented FORTRAN computer program. The equations of state for the Nevada volcanic 'tuff'rock could then be converted to those relating to the type of rock in the Alberta formations.

It was necessary to calculate how far under the tar sands the bombs should be placed, to avoid any contamination of the oil, and whether there was any danger of environmental contamination with the much less than one per cent radiation not contained within the rock glass. This included a study of underground rivers beneath the sands, so that they could be avoided. Each nuclear device, with all the needed preparation, cost on average $1 million at the time and it was necessary to determine how much oil might be produced. The statistics were very rough, the highest being that one bomb would produce 1 million barrels of oil. The lowest suggested would produce 250,000 barrels. Oil was under $4 a barrel in those days but at $1 a barrel, it was feasible. Oil from the Middle East today costs more than twenty times what it cost when the initial study was made. Today, oil produced with the nuclear option would likely compete favourably, while at the same time releasing us from any dependency on unstable countries.

The project was almost all set to go ahead when someone released the nature of the proposed experiment in Canada before Canadian permission had been received.

The Canadian experiment would have used a pattern of just a few bombs, strategically placed under the tar sands to give us the maximum amount of information. John Diefenbaker, then prime minsiter, was so incensed at the early release of information that he killed the project immediately. Once again, ill-informed politicians had killed a project which could have been of immense benefit to Canada, one which might well have made North America independent of Middle East oil.

Although the politics of atomic weapons has changed since then, oil could still be safely (witness the Nevada population) produced in Alberta more cheaply than Middle Eastern oil, if the will is there, with the added benefit of reducing the nuclear stockpile on a worthwhile cause.