Venezuela's interest in nuclear power is technologically sound
Reuters and Forbes are two of many news outlets that have reported recently that Venezuela has approached Argentina about the possibility of purchasing a nuclear power reactor.
This proposal will certainly cause anxious reactions in the nuclear non-proliferation community and among certain members of the Bush administration. One of the statements that is sure to arise is something to the effect that Venezuela, as a major oil producer and member of OPEC must be interested in something other than power – after all, the critics will state, the country has “plenty” of domestic energy supplies and does not “need” nuclear power.
I make this prediction based on the reactions to Iran’s developments of components of the nuclear power plant fuel cycle and Venezuela’s recent rocky relationship with the Bush Administration.
From a technical and economic point of view, however, it is quite logical for Venezuela to choose to invest in nuclear power developments, especially now. The nation has a very profitable oil industry with plenty of free cash, and it has enormous resources of extra heavy oil. This type of resource is difficult to exploit and normally requires enhanced recovery methods.
The most common technique used used to enhance recovery for oils like those found in the Orinoco Oil Belt in Venezuela is cylic steam injection to heat up and liquify the deposit. After the heavy, thick oil is removed from the ground, it needs further processing, often in the form of hydrogen cracking, in order to yield higher value hydrocarbons and reduce the production of lower value, carbon rich coke.
All of these processing steps require significant energy additions; up until now the energy has been supplied by burning low value methane gases and other waste products found in deposits near the heavy oil. In some cases, these gas deposits are running out, in other cases, they are being gathered and processed into natural gas that can be liquified and transported to markets like the United States where there is a large market willing to pay enough for the gas to make it illogical to burn it in the heavy oil fields.
References for above information – World Energy Council Survey of Energy Resources 2001 – Natural Bitumen and Extra-Heavy Oil
and Finfacts Business News
Venezuela has some well educated petroleum engineers that have evidently realized that Argentina’s CAREM nuclear power system might be a replacement supply of the heat that can produce the steam and hydrogen needed to exploit the extra heavy oil.