OTTAWA—Canada may need to turn to nuclear energy as a way of getting the heavy oil in its western tar sands out of the ground without adding seriously to greenhouse gases, Natural Resources Minister Gary Lunn said on Thursday.
"We shouldn't be afraid to look at all forms of clean energy, and if it can dramatically reduce greenhouse gases—... it has that potential—we should be open to it," Lunn told Reuters.
It is ultimately not a federal decision to use nuclear power at the oil sands, but Ottawa can encourage a certain direction, and it also has the power to regulate greenhouse gas emissions, which are blamed for climate change.
He said discussions were already taking place with industry and the province of Alberta, where the oil sands are found, and he would meet with the province's energy minister soon.
One method of extracting the tar-like bitumen from the oil sands is to inject steam into the ground to make it flow more easily. Currently, industry burns relatively clean natural gas to make the steam needed to get the gooey crude.
This is a process one oil economist has likened to using gold to make lead, using up natural gas that can be used in the chemical industry or for heating homes, and in any case emitting some greenhouse gases.
Nuclear energy does not produce emissions of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, though many environmentalists oppose its use because of what to do with nuclear waste.
"Listen, you believe in reducing greenhouse gases or you don't; you believe in climate change, and if you do, you should be taking a hard look (at nuclear energy for the tar sands)," Lunn said.
"There's no question that, absolutely, it's worth getting very serious about looking at the options and saying what would be the impacts, and that's what we're doing."
Canada's minority Conservative government says it will be impossible to meet the emission targets laid down by the Kyoto protocol on climate change, partly because of rising emissions in the booming oil industry.
But it is under heavy pressure from the opposition to do what it can to limit those emissions.
The privately held company Energy Alberta is pitching to oil-sands developers the concept of building a nuclear plant near Alberta's Fort McMurray, where the industry is concentrated, and has said it could have a proposal within the next few months.