Is Canada backing away from the science & technology economy?

by John Hilborn

The National Research Universal Reactor (NRU) and the Canadian Neutron Beam Centre at the Canadian Nuclear Laboratories (CNL) in Chalk River, Ontario are scheduled to close permanently on March 31, 2018.

Following that date, Canada will become the only country among 30 countries with nuclear power reactors that does not have a supporting research reactor.

With a Nobel Prize, CANDU support, and the production of medical isotopes, all directly attributed to NRU, the question begs to be asked: “What will replace NRU and how can a national laboratory continue ground-breaking research without a multi-purpose research reactor?”

The plain truth is, there is no technical reason for closing NRU and the Canadian Neutron Beam Centre on March 31.

Atomic Energy of Canada Limited (AECL) is confident that NRU is reliable, safe and licensable until at least 2021, 47 years after replacement of the reactor vessel in 1974. A stroke of the pen could rescind the imminent shutdown and allow plenty of time to seriously consider replacing the reactor vessel for another 25 years or longer.

It’s been done before, and there is no insurmountable barrier to doing it again.

The 15-month repair to the vessel from May 2009 to August 2010 was an incredible technical achievement, and proves beyond doubt that Chalk River’s dedicated staff can rise to the occasion when required.

The reality is that someone or something has been trying to shut NRU down since the year 2010.

This agenda appears to be deeply rooted within both of the major political parties.

When you bump up against an illogical agenda such as this, you can’t help but ask, is it simply a matter of risk aversion and loss of confidence in AECL following a litany of financial losses and other problems: the MAPLE reactor fiasco and resulting dispute with Nordion, the 15-month shutdown of NRU and costly repair, overspent budgets, a long history of subsidizing the isotope business and decades accumulation of liquid HEU/fission-product waste, or is this an exercise similar to the eradication of the Canadian aerospace industry in the 1950’s, when the AVRO Arrow project was arbitrarily eliminated overnight?

It appears the only difference is the slow and painful closure of NRU, and the decommissioning agenda underway at the Chalk River Laboratories.

While those in favour of eliminating NRU will tell you that there are alternatives to the NRU, the truth is, this is the beginning of Canada backing away from the nuclear economy and all of the technological breakthroughs that will be discovered in the future.

For example, the government awarded $60 million to several Canadian universities to develop a new method of producing the medical isotope Tc-99m directly, without Mo/Tc generators, using medical cyclotrons.

The goal was to build enough cyclotrons to supply Canada only, and following prototype development, private investors would finance commercial production facilities.

However, because of the Tc-99m six-hour half-life, distribution would be limited to large regional hospitals, while the rural population and northern indigenous people would continue to depend on costly imported Mo-99 generators.

It’s a minimal, band-aid solution – technically feasible, but many years away from large-scale commercial deployment.

In contrast, one 250 kW NRU Mo-99 target rod per day or one 250 kW CANDU target bundle per day from an industrial radiopharmacy at either reactor site could supply more than three times the anticipated global demand for Mo/Tc generators in the year 2021.

Canada consumes approximately four per cent of the global demand for Tc-99m; and to supply Canada’s nuclear medicine hospitals would require at least 20 cyclotrons.

The expected global demand in 2021 is 40 million unit doses per year, which would supply only 15 per cent of the world population.

With more than 111,000 jobs in Canada attributed to the nuclear economy, there could well be job loss and an economic downturn in this industry.

Canada is at a crossroads and needs a visionary leader to step in and reverse the decision to close NRU prematurely.

The only person that can reverse this decision at this point is Prime Minister Justin Trudeau!

Standing up for Canada and Canadian innovation and job growth will extend the life of NRU and institute a sustainable plan to ensure that Canada has a multi-purpose national research reactor at the Chalk River Laboratories to maintain and grow new jobs in the science and research knowledge based economy.

It is never too late for the Prime Minister to exercise his executive authority unless Canada truly is backing away from the science and technology economy.

At the ceremonial opening of the Harriet Brooks material science laboratory in October 2016, the Ottawa Citizen quoted Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr: “This is more than science for science’s sake,” followed by the headline: “Chalk River opens new nuclear lab with focus on practical applications.”

The Ottawa Citizen article noted that the new laboratory won’t do research in the fundamental field of nuclear physics, known as “basic” research.

Again quoting the Minister: “Your efforts have practical applications, real value, and enduring benefits.”

In response, one of the last scientists to do basic research at Chalk River took issue with the Minister’s remarks.

John Hardy, whose group was shut down in 1997, now leads a research group at Texas A&M University that does basic research with a superconducting cyclotron.

“Good science is never for ‘science’s sake’; its goal is to increase human understanding of how the world works. All the practical applications that governments love couldn’t exist without the basic discoveries that are required first,” he said in an email.

“I find it ironic that Harriet Brooks, for whom the new building has been named, was herself a basic researcher in nuclear physics, who was active 100 years ago, long before anyone imagined that there could be applications for something as esoteric as the atomic nucleus.”

And finally, Nobel Prizes matter.

At Bell Labs, between 1937 and 2009, no less than eight Nobel Prizes in basic physics and chemistry were awarded to that remarkable group of scientific pioneers.

Their achievements in basic research launched the electronic revolution – the transistor in 1947, the first computer utilizing transistors in 1954, the first solar battery in 1956, the laser in 1958, the communications satellite in 1966, digital photography in 1974 and many more.

March 31 will come quickly, so act quickly Canada, or look back at the demise of NRU as one of Canada’s greatest political failures.

Don’t relinquish our world standing as a leader in the nuclear research and innovation sector. Provide the neutrons, and Chalk River’s outstanding scientists, engineers and tradesmen will deliver the neutronic revolution.

A 10-year moratorium would be a tragic and unnecessary mistake.

(John Hilborn is a retired AECL physicist, and was recently named to the Order of Canada “for his innovative contributions as a physicist in the development of Canada’s nuclear industry.”)