Chalk River shutdown: Nuclear inaction puts half-century of innovation at risk

Saturday, June 20, 2009 – Globe and Mail
ANNA MEHLER PAPERNY

TORONTO — Chalk River is the reason Thad Harroun came to Canada.

The biophysicist and California native had worked with experts in his field on both sides of the Atlantic. But it was Canada’s NRU reactor in Chalk River, Ont., that drew him north. Prof. Harroun did postdoctoral work there and got a teaching position at Brock University. He travels regularly up to the reactor to shine high-powered neutron beams at bits of cell membranes and see what happens.

Or, at least, he did.

Now, he’s stuck in St. Catharines, Ont., research stymied by the same shutdown that has caused a worldwide isotope shortage. And he’s at a loss.

 

For more than 60 years, Canada was a global leader in nuclear research. The country was home to the first nuclear reactor outside of the United States. Chalk River’s NRU, designed to produce anything from medical isotopes to weapons-grade plutonium, remains one of the few “universal” reactors in the world and boasts a Nobel-Prize-winning physicist in its ranks.

But as the aging machine heads into a sixth week offline, Canada is seen as dropping the ball not only when it comes to the 31 per cent of global isotope supplies it was relied upon to create and export worldwide; it risks letting a half-century of innovation slip away, leaving a retinue of researchers, doctors and technicians with no choice but to pack it in or pack their bags and head to greener, more nuke-friendly pastures.

“This is really actually quite awful,” Prof. Harroun said. “The whole Canadian community who uses neutron beams now have to find other places. They have to go to the States or they have to go to Europe or even farther abroad.”

The president of the Canadian Association of Nuclear Medicine agrees. “It’s going to be a drain of brains outside Canada, if Canada gets out of that field,” Jean-Luc Urbain said.

Chalk River hasn’t produced its accustomed batch of Molybdenum-99, the isotope used to make the Technetium, which is needed for crucial medical procedures such as cardiac imaging and bone scans, since it shut down thanks to a heavy water leak in May. Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. has said it will take three months before the 52-year-old reactor can start cranking out isotopes again.

The Harper government has suggested that Canada may get out of the medical isotopes business for good. And there are no plans to renew Chalk River’s licence when it expires in 2016.

The government is looking for alternative isotope supplies, in both the short- and long-term. But if Chalk River goes down, so does the specialized research the reactor makes possible.

Dominic Ryan, president of the Canadian Institute for Neutron Scattering, and other nuclear science researchers have been making their case before the House of Commons natural resources committee all week. They argue the government must act quickly, or fall behind in the race for the next breakthrough in nuclear science.

“The warning shot came 18 months ago [when Chalk River went offline in October, 2007]. This is the real one. And if we don’t act now, then, I don’t know – maybe we should just put the lights out and go home. If there isn’t some concrete action fairly soon, we’re going to start losing people,” Dr. Ryan said.

“I just spent the last couple days talking to people up there and I know a number of them, shall we say, they have contingency plans.”

Nuclear medicine specialists have warned that if Canada stops producing isotopes domestically, it leaves its population vulnerable to the vagaries of a precarious global isotope market in substances that measure their shelf life in hours. The dangers of this have been driven home in the past month: The price of technetium as much as tripled, forcing Canadian health-care providers to scramble for cash to acquire supplies.

Canada may secure a reliable medical isotopes supply from elsewhere. But if Chalk River goes dark that could extinguish the country’s bright lights in nuclear research: The reactor makes Canada a nucleus of global innovation in the field that many fear could vanish alongside the country’s isotope-producing capabilities.

Canada’s Neutron Beam Centre is one of only two dozen places in the world that enable researchers to use high-powered neutrons to inspect everything from damaged power-plant walls to cell walls. It has about 25 staff members at Chalk River and more than 600 affiliated scientists across the country and beyond.

Neutron research at Chalk River won Canada a Nobel in 1994, when Bert Brockhouse was awarded the physics prize for his groundbreaking advances in neutron scattering. The atom’s-eye-view technology he pioneered is now in common use in labs around the world.

That would be one of the most immediate casualties of a permanent Chalk River shutdown. Even if the NRU’s lifespan is limited to 2016, Dr. Ryan told the committee this week, neutron research there would be gone within a year.

“With no future at NRU and no new research reactor to replace it, the staff would have no reason to stay. They would move to foreign laboratories and be lost to Canada,” he said. “Fifty years of innovation and leadership would be abandoned.”

***

ISOTOPE PANEL

Lisa Raitt, the federal Natural Resources Minister, has appointed an expert panel to explore ways of securing a long-term supply of the medical isotopes that have been produced by the aging nuclear reactor at Chalk River, Ont.

The government has asked interested organizations to submit ideas about isotope production before the end of July. The panel will assess them to determine the best medium- and long-term solutions. The panel members are:

Richard Drouin, counsel in the law firm McCarthy Tétrault and former chairman of the North American Electric Reliability Corporation;

Peter Goodhand, president and CEO of the Canadian Cancer Society, with more than 25 years experience in the health-care sector, will serve as chair of the panel;

Thom Mason, laboratory director at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Tennessee, a multi-program science and technology laboratory of the U.S. Department of Energy, one of the world’s leading nuclear scientists;

Éric Turcotte, clinical head of the Molecular Imaging Center of Sherbrooke, and associate professor, University of Sherbrooke, one of Canada’s foremost nuclear medicine researchers in the development and use of new medical isotopes.

***

CANADA’S NUCLEAR HISTORY

1945 ZEEP (Zero Energy Experimental Pile) becomes the first nuclear reactor outside the United States.

1947 NRX reactor at Chalk River starts exporting plutonium to United States.

1957 NRU (National Research Universal) reactor operational in Chalk River, becoming the most powerful nuclear reactor in the world.

1994 Canadian Bert Brockhouse wins Nobel Prize in physics for neutron spectroscopy – work done at Chalk River.

November, 2007 The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission takes NRU offline for a month after discovering backup power wasn’t connected. CNSC commissioner Linda Keen was later fired, described by Prime Minister Stephen Harper as a “Liberal appointee.”

May, 2009 The NRU is shut down when a heavy water leak is discovered, leaving hospitals scrambling to obtain isotopes from elsewhere.

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