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Utilize Molten Salt Reactors for GHG free, low cost and safe process heat for the development of the oilsands.



When examining oilsands SAGD operations, typically natural gas is combusted on site to fuel steam generation units which creates two problems. First, it exposes the project to economic risk through the highly variable nature of natural gas cost, which is significant given the large volume of fuel that will be consumed over the life of the project. Second, natural gas combustion is the primary source of greenhouse gas emissions for an in-situ project which puts growth in this industry sector at odds with carbon emission mandates set by the Canadian Government, and also creates negative sentiment towards ongoing development of the resource. Many attempts have been made in the past to show how nuclear power may be used to supply the energy demand created by the growth of development in the oil sands regions. The proposed configurations fail in one or more critical areas such as improper steam conditions at the plant outlet, excessively high capital requirements, or a mismatch in the scale of operations. The Molten Salt Reactor (MSR) is a Generation IV fission nuclear reactor that was first built and operated in the 1960s and was demonstrated to be a practical, safe and economically viable tool for electricity generation. It is Penumbra's mission to introduce the basic concepts of the MSR to the thermal heavy oil industry, and to demonstrate the viability of integrating MSR with thermal heavy oil production through the analysis of a conceptual SAGD commercial phase. It is shown that the heat requirements of a typical SAGD commercial phase may be met with a total thermal power output of 375 MWth, and that by offsetting the costs of combusting natural gas (fuel and carbon compliance costs) a Molten Salt Reactor appears to be economically viable when natural gas is available at a price of 1.09 -2.32 C$/mcf. Therefore the MSR represents a potential path forward for permanently inexpensive steam and SAGD operations that do not emit greenhouse gases

Category of the action

Fossil fuel sector efficiency

What actions do you propose?

MSR Related Actions

1) Establish key groups of engineers, researchers and business development individuals who will concentrate on the business plan, pre-F.E.E.D, F.E.E.D, CNSC filing and various design elements. The aim it to commercialize the technology by 2021. This may require collarboration with a variety of research labs, engineering firms, oil companies and the CNSC. 

2) Educate media,oilsands producers, investors and the CNSC on the details of this proposal, including technicalities of MSR and its associated economic & environmental implications.

3) Establish industry partners within the nuclear engineering industry and the oilsands production and refining industry.These partners will be essencial to complete all phases of the engineering studies in preparation for a pilot project.

4) Establish relationship with CNSC and initiate filing. This is a cruicial step that requires some F.E.E.D work to be completed. Both the pilot and the eventual commercialization of MSRs hinge on approval from the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commision. Work with the CNSC to ensure the reactor falls under the new "small modular" classification.

5) Work with Canadian provincial and federal governments to ensure there is a well though out supply chain for nuclear fuel as well as a 'cradle to grave' plan for waste disposal.

6) Utilize and expand intellectual property by kicking off Pre-F.E.E.D and F.E.E.D studies that will lead into the final eningeering design of the MSR. Pump sizes, heat exchange parameters, steam generation and piping design will augment or add to an existing IP portfolio.

7) Establish the detailed molten salt chemistry for MSR operations, including all aspects of salt, fuel and  fission-product management. 

8) Secure funding & site(s) for a 30-50Mwth pilot.  

9) Secure remaining licences from CNSC to complete construction and startup.

Oilsands Related Actions

1) Establish team with background in inSitu oilsands operations.

2) Review existing oilsands SAGD operations to obtain acceptable operating parameters for temperatures, pressures and steam rates.

3) Understand existing once through steam generation or drum boilers and thier respective operating conditions to generate steam. Quantites of natural gas burned should be understood to quantify the operational cost savings of no longer burning natural gas when implementing a MSR.

3) Review the enviromental impact of existing OSTGs or drum boilers and the associated GHG emmisions. This will represent the GHG reduction when deploying MSRs for steam generation.

Overall Action Items

1) Build model that generates full cycle economics on a standard 35,000bbl/d SAGD phase taking into account gas price and all capex and opex. This will be used to highlight why MSR are a better option not only enviromentally but also economically.

2) Complete business plan

Who will take these actions?

Penumbra Energy and its associated:

  • Nuclear Scientists and Engineers
  • Uranium Mining Executives
  • Finance Executives
  • Electric Utility Executives
  • Project Management Professionals
  • Large Engineering/Nuclear Partner
  • Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission
  • Investors

Where will these actions be taken?

  • Canadian Oilsands located in Alberta, Canada.
  • Ontario, Canada

How much will emissions be reduced or sequestered vs. business as usual levels?

Emissions related to the combustion of natural gas for steam generation would be eliminated. In addition any process heat applications (ie partial upgrading or full upgrading) that combust oil or natural gas would also have thier GHG emmisions eliminated by utilizing heat from a MSR. 

What are other key benefits?

Nuclear energy has been proposed for oilsands development in the past. 


  • Zero GHG Emissions
  • Excess temp conditions
  • Large supply of fuel
  • Stable and reliable power and heat source



  • High capital costs
  • Not scalable
  • Location constraints
  • Low fuel utilization
  • Long lived nuclear waste


These disadvantages are largely what have kept nuclear away from oilsands development and fortunately are associated with conventional nuclear. MSRs have many advantages over conventional nuclear that make them far superior as a fit with oilsands development. 

Increased Safety

  • Plant operates at atmospheric pressure
  • No chemical driving forces removing the risk of steam buildup, explosions or hydrogen production
  • Nuclear proliferation resistant


Reduced Costs

  • Smaller simpler components
  • Small heat exchangers
  • Extremely low fuel costs  


Resource Sustainability 

  • Typically 35 t U per GWe-year versus 200 t U for LWRs.


Greatly Reduced Long Lived Wastes

  • Waste becomes benign in 500 years 


Ideal Process Heat Conditions


What are the proposal’s costs?

See Timeline Below.

A pilot would be much more expensive than the 'commercialized' version as most of the components would not be mass produced initially. Once commercialized the costs would be driven down considerable as most compnents would be assembled in a factory. MSRs for oilsands would be small enough to transport via truck. Penumbra expects the MSR to compete with steam generators (in a low gas price enviroment) on a project NPV basis. 

Time line


Phase 1 Identify/Select ($300k)

Technical: (H2 2013 - H2 2014)

  • Pre-conceptual design report
  • Prelim cost estimate of primary systems


Regulatory: (Q4 2012 - H2 2014)

  • Build systems and processes to meet Canadian Nuclear Safety Commision standard


Business: (H1 2013 - H1 2015)

  • Form advisory board
  • Leverage investor funds with grant applications
  • Obtain MOU with key nuclear institution (Pilot site selection)


Phase 2 Define ($10MM)


Technical: (H2 2014 - H1 2016)

  • Front End Engineering Design Studies
  • Final Cost Estimate and Project Sanction


Regulatory: (H2 2014 - H1 2016)

  • CNSC - Vendor Design Review
  • CNSC - Enviromental Assesment and Site Prep License
  • CNSC - License to Construct


Business: (H1 2014 - H1 2016)

  • Secure Strategic Partners
  • Strategic Review of IP



Phase 3 Execute/Operate Pilot ($500-1000MM)

Regulatory: (H1 2016 - H2 2021)

  • Complete regulatory licensing requirements
  • Prepare site, construct facility and fuel
  • CNSC - License to Operate


Business: (H2 2021)

  • Commision Plant


Phase 4 Commercialization


Related proposals

A previous proposal (link below) has highlighted MSRs with a focus on thorium as the fuel source. Base load electricity generation was the focus of this proposal.

Penumbra's propsal is to utilize the advantages of MSR over conventional nuclear and leverage MSR's ideal process heat conditions to become part of the future of oilsands. It is the view of Penumbra that the fuel cycle of a MSR has such high efficiency that thorium is simply not required. Low enriched uranium is abundant enough today to supply fuel for MSRs into the distant future.