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Alberta upstart pitches nuclear power - 28-Aug-07

An upstart Alberta firm with no experience in nuclear energy has taken its first official step to build the province's first nuclear power plant, saying Tuesday that it has the backing of a large but unnamed company working in the province. Energy Alberta Corp., run by Calgary entrepreneur Wayne Henuset, has filed an application for a licence to prepare a site for its proposed $6.2-billion nuclear power plant with the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission

. It is the first of five licence applications in a process, including construction, that could extend over at least 10 years. Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd., a Crown corporation, would build the plant, and two-year-old Energy Alberta, AECL's partner, would own and operate it. The proposed site is near Peace River in northwestern Alberta, about 500 kilometres from Edmonton. Mr. Henuset, who has worked in oil drilling, real estate and liquor sales, refused to name its main customer. They'll come forward at their time, Mr. Henuset said at a press conference in Calgary Tuesday morning.

The one unnamed company would take about 70 per cent of the 2,200 megawatts Energy Alberta hopes to produce. Several oil sands companies - the likeliest customers - said they are not working with Energy Alberta, including EnCana Corp., Total SA and Husky Energy Inc. Royal Dutch Shell PLC, which is pursuing new technology in a fringe area of the oil sands, will likely require a huge electricity source but Tuesday said it hasn't decided on its power requirements. It really is too early to discuss [our] potential commercial project and any of its elements, including power, said Kurt Kadatz, a spokesman for Sure Northern Energy, a special Shell subsidiary. Sure Northern is in charge of land west of Fort McMurray that was acquired by Shell last year for roughly $500-million. It is the closest major oil sands project to Energy Alberta's nuclear plant. Critics of Energy Alberta's plans say the small company is unprepared. There was a lot of avoidance of the questions, said Elena Schacherl, a member of the Citizens for the Use of Sustainable Energy, a new group formed this year to oppose Energy Alberta. Jack Century, also a member of the group and a geologist, said the site proposed by Energy Alberta could be prone to earthquakes.

Sierra Club of Canada Tuesday called nuclear power an unnecessary risk for Alberta, adding it is not economical. Pembina Institute has said nuclear shouldn't be Alberta's priority given that the province has other energy options. The provincial government is open minded on potential future energy sources, said Jason Chance, spokesman for Alberta Energy Minister Mel Knight. We need to consider the advantages and the potential challenges of nuclear energy, Mr. Chance said.

The oil industry in general has been courted by the nuclear business for years but the power source never made the best sense, according to Greg Stringham, a vice-president at the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers. At this point in time, [nuclear] is further out in the future than the planning cycle for oil sands projects, Mr. Stringham said. Total SA of France, which broached the possibility of nuclear power in 2005 when it first bought an undeveloped oil sands project, Tuesday said it is not actively considering nuclear. EnCana Corp. said nuclear is an option, but it is more conceptual than concrete. What role it could play is difficult to estimate right now, said Alan Boras, an EnCana spokesman.

Husky Energy Inc. said the Energy Alberta plan is too distant for its oil sands development schedule. John Lau, the company's chief executive officer, in January said nuclear was an option the company might consider. A spokesman said Tuesday that the company's interest in nuclear has been largely overstated. We are no more or less interested in [nuclear] as an alternative than any other company in the oil sands, said Graham White, a Husky spokesman. Formed in 2005, Energy Alberta is also backed by Hank Swartout, founder and former CEO of Precision Drilling Trust, the company he built into the country's largest driller of oil and natural gas wells.

Royal Bank of Canada is Energy Alberta's financial adviser. Energy Alberta has a deal with AECL in Alberta to market the company's next-generation nuclear reactor, the ACR-1000, which has never been built anywhere. New Brunswick is also looking at the technology, as are other jurisdictions, such as Ontario and the United Kingdom.

AECL said it is confident it could build a nuclear reactor in Alberta on time and on budget, even with -40 C temperatures during the winter construction season and a shortage of skilled construction workers. I don't think Alberta will be different than anywhere else, said Roland Boucher, western vice-president of AECL. The proposed nuclear plant would produce power equivalent to about 20 per cent of the current peak demand in Alberta.