Over more than half a century, the reactor in Chalk River, Ont., has produced a Nobel prize and boosted Canada’s stature as a nuclear innovator, acting as a magnet for budding researchers.
It’s also been the source of deep national embarrassment thanks to an unscheduled outage at the aging reactor in 2009 that led to a global shortage of medical isotopes.
Now it’s been effectively orphaned as Ottawa sells off the CANDU reactor arm of its parent company, Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd.
That divestiture is forcing the federal government to decide whether to continue running it and eventually replace the reactor, operate it until it is too old to repair any more and shut it down, bring in private-sector partners to help run and finance it, or some combination of these options.
It will depend on whether Ottawa decides the site is a centre for badly needed innovation or a nuclear burden on the public purse. The federal government intends to end the production of isotopes after 2016, but the future of the reactor’s research functions remains unclear.
Several private companies think Chalk River is worth their time.
Even without an official request, at least two teams of companies from Canada and the United States have said they would like to bid on a contract to help run, remediate and refurbish it.
The livelihoods of scientists across Canada depend on irradiated neutrons the reactor produces in addition to the isotopes.
This is the only place in the country, and one of a handful in the world, that produces those tiny subatomic particles and has facilities to shoot them at different materials to see what happens. Without a place to do that, researchers say, the country could lose a source of made-in-Canada innovation and leave its scientists with no choice but to ply their trade elsewhere.
A plan to replace the NRU with a pair of new reactors was scrapped in 2008, and since then, the reactor’s life has been extended without a long-term plan for the facility.
“We’ve been on this band-aid solution for a long time,” University of Winnipeg chemist Chris Wiebe said. “What’s going to happen next year? What’s going to happen in five years?
“It creates a lot of uncertainty.”
Running a reactor – especially one that’s more than 50 years old, and would need to be replaced to the tune of almost $1-billion – is no mean financial feat. And Chalk River’s biggest boosters are first to admit it’s difficult to quantify the return on investment for a facility whose purpose is the pursuit of abstract discoveries whose payoffs, while significant, may not be realized for years.
But there’s no shortage of private-sector interest.
CRNL Partners, a group that includes EnergySolutions Canada, SNC Lavalin, AMEC NSS, Kinectric and Wardrop, which are all involved in the nuclear supply chain, announced earlier this year it’s interested in a public-private partnership with the federal government to manage Chalk River’s lab.
It hasn’t yet submitted a formal bid. It has an office in nearby Deep River, but still isn’t officially incorporated. But according to the federal government’s lobbyist registry, EnergySolutions Canada and its partners plan to bid on a contract “for the management and operation of the Chalk River Laboratories facility that is expected as part of the Atomic Energy of Canada Limited (AECL) restructuring.”
Brian McGee, a former AECL vice-president and chief nuclear officer who’s acting as CRNL Partners’ CEO, said this week he can’t give specifics on the group’s plans.
“We expect to be in a competition with other parties,” he said. “I’d be revealing our strategy.”
A partnership of CH2M Hill Canada, Babcock and Wilcox and the Battelle Memorial Institute has also thrown its hat informally into the ring.
“We’ve got a very good team and we’re eager and interested to propose on it as soon as the final details come out,” said Tom Searle, president of CH2M Hill Canada. The Colorado-based engineering company does large-scale site remediation; Babcock and Wilcox does design and construction for energy facilities, including nuclear sites; Battelle is one of the world’s largest research and development organizations and manages the Oak Ridge National Laboratory for the U.S. Department of Energy.
Earlier this year, the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission approved plans for upgrades that would keep it operational through 2021.
“There’s a lot of expertise at Chalk River. The intellectual capabilities there, the intellectual horsepower, is second to none in Canada,” said Gordon Tapp, president of Chalk River Technicians and Technologists.
Research at Chalk River
The native of Lethbridge, Alta., is the first name that comes up in any discussion of the NRU reactor’s contributions. Dr. Brockhouse shared the 1994 Nobel Prize for physics for his work at Chalk River in 1950. He’s credited with pioneering the science of studying the way neutrons affect matter when they’re bounced around – what he called neutron spectroscopy. He got a slew of other awards in addition to the Nobel, and was named a companion to the Order of Canada.
This is basically the study of three-dimensional objects using neutrons to determine how their atoms are aligned. Pioneered at Chalk River in 2000, it’s supposed to help scientists get up close and personal with tricky biological materials such as proteins.
When the space shuttle Challenger exploded into flames seconds after its launch in January, 1986, the culprit was believed to be a particular component of the booster rocket. The steel was sent to Chalk River for neutron stress tests. As it turned out, it wasn’t to blame for the accident.
Neutrons’ magnetic properties have proven useful in studying superconductivity – when materials are so efficient at transporting electricity they can do so with no resistance.
It’s a problem when bits of your nuclear reactor start to come unglued. Scientists at Chalk River used neutron scattering on steel welds before and after irradiation to see whether they weakened over time. The NRU says it’s the only place in the world equipped to undertake these studies. “That’s hard to find. And that’s worth something.”
Chalk River, A History
Canada’s first nuclear reactor began operating in 1945. It stands Zero Energy Experimental Pile.
The second, more complex reactor – completed in 1947. The initials stand for “National Research X-metal,” because the word “uranium” was deemed top-secret. (Later on, it stood for eX-perimental)
The current incarnation of Chalk River’s reactor started operating in 1957. The name stands for National Research Universal – this was designed as an all-purpose, versatile machine that could do whatever was required.
Type of fuel in the rods at Chalk River.
Type of isotope, used in medical procedures around the world, that Chalk River produces.
Number of Canadian universities using Chalk River’s neutron scattering facilities.
People working at Chalk River full-time