Ottawa’s sale clouds the future of Chalk River

Friday, December 18, 2009 – Globe and Mail
ANNA MEHLER PAPERNY

So it’s official: After hinting at it for years, Ottawa’s selling off the family reactor business.

But what happens to the other part of Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. – the multi-purpose facility in Chalk River, Ont., that was once one of the world’s nuclear leaders but has more recently been plagued by technical difficulties that have given Canada a black eye in the world of nuclear medicine?

Hard to say.

Natural Resources Minister Lisa Raitt’s announcement yesterday says only that the Chalk River facility “will not be affected by today’s announcement” that the government is seeking bids for its Candu sector.

The site where Bert Brockhouse made the discovery that led to his Nobel Prize in physics isn’t much to look at right now: Its main feature, the NRU reactor that normally produces a third of the world’s medical isotopes, has been down since a heavy water leak was discovered in May. The ensuing shutdown upset a fragile supply chain and sparked a worldwide scramble for the suddenly scarce radioactive material.

According to an AECL announcement issued Wednesday, weld repair is ongoing and the reactor should be up and running by the end of March.

An expert panel tasked with coming up with solutions to deal with threats to Canada’s isotope supply issued a report on Nov. 30 recommending Ottawa move ahead as soon as possible on a new billion-dollar reactor to replace Chalk River’s 52-year-old NRU. This would not only meet Canada’s isotope needs but also facilitate research and private-sector innovation.

If Gordon Tapp and other Chalk River employees have their way, that’s exactly what will happen. Mr. Tapp is president of Chalk River Technicians and Technologists and is head of a task force lobbying the government to not only keep the reactor going, but replace it with a far more ambitious research reactor.

Ottawa has given no indication what it intends to do with the site, or with its aging reactor, responding to neither the expert panel recommendations nor the proposal from Chalk River employees. Its top priority, according to Ms. Raitt’s statement, “continues to be restarting the National Research Universal reactor (NRU) as quickly as possible, while maintaining the highest standards of safety and security. The Government will make a decision at a later date on the best management structure for that Division.”

Even if Ottawa decides it wants to abandon not only isotopes but all forms of nuclear research at Chalk River, it’s still on the hook for the massive amounts of radioactive waste now being stored onsite. In addition to waste from the NRU and its predecessor NRX, the site is also home to detritus shipped from hospitals and universities across the country, says Dominic Ryan, president of the Canadian Institute for Neutron Scattering, which does its research at Chalk River.

“It would have to be maintained, and actively maintained – you can’t just walk away from it,” he said.

Dr. Ryan wants the current reactor replaced and the whole site returned to its nuclear-innovation glory days.

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