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Nuclear Science: Preventing Future Ebola Outbreaks

West Africa experienced the largest Ebola outbreak in history in 2014. It claimed over ten thousand lives and impacted the entire countries of Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea. In June 2016, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared an end to Ebola and months later, in April of this year, Liberia removed its temporary Ebola treatment facility only for Africa to announce another outbreak just a month later.

Contagious and often deadly, the Ebola virus or hemorrhagic fever can be transmitted from animal to human and through human-to-human contact. Between 2-21 days after infection, a patient will experience symptoms that resemble a flu (fever, sore throat, headaches). As the virus continues to damage the immune system and organs, internal and even external bleeding can occur. Death rates for the disease can be as high as 90%.

The 2014 outbreak closed many schools in the region that remained locked for almost an entire year. Close to twenty thousand children lost their families, or were left without one or both parents, according to information reported on by UNICEF.

To prevent a repeat of the deadly Ebola 2014 outbreak, a team of scientists with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) are using nuclear science and technology to be able to effectively diagnose such viruses.

“We demonstrated our ability to respond quickly to emergencies such as the Ebola and Zika viruses, supplying affected countries with simple nuclear-derived kits so they could detect the diseases quickly and accurately in the field,” said IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano in his speech in late May at the International Conference on Technical Cooperation.

Early and rapid detection helps to limit the spread of such diseases. There are nuclear-derived techniques that scientists can use to help identify Ebola such as polymerase chain reaction technology (PCR) which examines the DNA of cells. Researchers in the Democratic Republic of Congo are hunting  fruit bats in the hopes that they might hold answers on Ebola, specifically, how the virus jumps from bats to other animals or how it causes outbreaks. And it’s not just researchers in the Congo. As pointed out by the IAEA, veterinarians in Africa are working in partnership with the agency to help prevent the spread of Ebola.

“Around 75% of human diseases originate from animals, which is why it is so important to stop them at the animal level. Nuclear-derived technology helps us do this,” according to Abel Wade, Director, National Veterinary Laboratory (LANAVET), Yaounde, Cameroon.

As was witnessed during the 2014 Ebola outbreak, quick and effective diagnoses is key to preventing large-scale transmission and infection. The most recent outbreak in the Congo was declared under control only a month after it was discovered.

 

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Being Prepared for the Unexpected: The Nuclear Industry is Disaster Ready

In 2011, one of the most powerful earthquakes ever recorded opened-up the sea floor and sent a wall of water rushing along the Japanese coast knocking out the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Images of the devastation made international headlines and raised concern over the safety and preparedness of nuclear power plants in the event of a disaster.

Recently, the government of Ontario announced that it is updating the province’s nuclear response plan. It will have a very solid and impressive basis on which to build.

Although the risk of a tsunami-induced accident at Canada’s nuclear power sites is close to non-existent, being prepared for the unexpected has been at the core of the nuclear industry’s commitment to safety. In fact, within a year of the Fukushima accident, Canada’s nuclear operators took additional steps, including a full-scale emergency exercise that was hosted by Ontario Power Generation (OPG) at its Darlington operations. The exercise brought together emergency responders from all levels of government and OPG, to test accident readiness.

Safety is a crucial pillar of success, and that is why the industry continues to add new measures to existing emergency response plans. As one example, OPG installed flood barriers to protect low-lying equipment in the event of a severe weather disaster. During the Fukushima event, an explosion took place because of a buildup of hydrogen. So OPG installed passive autocatalytic recombiners to limit the risk of a buildup of hydrogen should a leak ever occur.

Bruce Power, Ontario’s other nuclear generator, has built upon its safety foundation post-Fukushima, making additional investments in a suite of back-up generators and fire trucks. A new Emergency Management Centre, equipped with its own back-up power supply was also set up, and last October Bruce Power hosted 500 people from over two dozen agencies to take part in a week-long emergency preparedness drill called Exercise Huron Resolve.

This week-long exercise involved various industry partners and government including The Ministry of Health and Long Term Care, The Ontario Provincial Police, The Ministry of Labour’s Radiation Protection Services and OFMEM’s Provincial Emergency Operations Centre, which is based in Toronto.

Outside of Ontario, in New Brunswick, the Point Lepreau nuclear plant recently conducted  two large-scale emergency response exercises. A two-day simulation, in 2015, was conducted in partnership between NB Power and New Brunswick’s Emergency Measures Organization and this past May the company teamed up with the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) to run through security emergency response exercises.

It is important to point out that, prior to Fukushima, nuclear emergency response plans were already in place. In fact, the nuclear industry’s commitment to emergency planning has been in place since the operation of nuclear power plants began, over fifty years ago. Since that time, operators have continued to build upon best practices.

While the geography of Canada makes it highly unlikely that an earthquake and ensuing tsunami, like the one that swallowed the Japanese coast, could ever occur here, we know that we must invest and demonstrate our commitment to planning and preparing for the unexpected. Our people are our number one asset, living and working in the communities they serve. Keeping our communities safe isn’t just part of our job it’s part of our community responsibility. One that we take pride in.

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Canada 150: Nuclear Science and Your Health

When it comes to health care and medicine, nuclear science had made numerous accomplishments that have improved the lives of millions of people around the world. As Canada celebrates 150 years, we wanted to look back at some of our achievements.

In the late 1800s Dr. Harriet Brooks, Canada’s first nuclear physicist, discovered radon while at McGill University and worked in the lab of Dr. Marie Curie. Her work laid the foundation for nuclear physics and paved a pathway forward for women like Sylvia Fedoruk.

In the mid-1950s, Fedoruk and a team of researchers under the guidance of Dr. Harold Johns, became one of the first groups in Canada (the other was a team from London, Ontario) to successfully treat a cancer patient with cobalt-60 radiation therapy. Today, it is estimated that over 70 million people around the world have benefited from this treatment and cobalt-60 machines are still in use today.

The benefits and applications of cobalt-60 extend far beyond cancer treatments. The ability of cobalt-60 to effectively kill off even the tiniest of potentially harmful microbes makes it the perfect sterilization tool for medical equipment like gloves, gowns, IV bags, syringes and catheters. Medical-grade cobalt or High Specific Activity (HSA) cobalt-60, like the kind used by Feodurk and others, has been a foundation for cancer treatment for over 60 years. A recent partnership between Nordion and Bruce Power will ensure that cobalt-60 continues to be readily available for years to come.

Pioneers in medical isotopes over half a century ago, Canada led the world in the supply of isotopes, contributing to the betterment of global health. Used for the diagnosis and treatment of various diseases and illnesses such as imaging of the brain, lungs, heart and kidney, isotopes have been a key component to the health-care system have helped millions of people every year. The importance of isotopes is increasing. According to a recent report, the global market for nuclear diagnostic medicine is expected to double by 2020. Globally, over 40 million nuclear medicine procedures are performed every year.

Today, in the halls at TRIUMF in Vancouver, scientists are working on the next wave of cancer treatments through the exploration of alpha therapies. Through a targeted approach, cancer cells are blasted from the inside out, minimizing damage to healthy tissues. These alpha-emitting isotopes are thought to be especially effective for dealing with late-state or metastasized cancers (cancer that has spread from one part of the body to another).

In order to develop the necessary tools to diagnose and treat patients, an understanding of how our body functions at the cellular level is key. The community of St. Catharines, Ontario is home to Brock University.  There groups of scientists are looking to unlock the answers to some of the world’s most pressing health challenges by figuring out how our body works by peering inside our cells. Using a neutron beam and a very high-resolution microscope, you can look inside the tissues of cells without doing any damage. Thad Harroun is an Associate Professor at Brock University. He came to Canada in 2003 to work at the Canadian Neutron Beam Centre and has worked on numerous experiments to better understand the interactions inside our bodies. One of his recent projects involves a better understanding of cholesterol.

“We want to know how proteins in our cells interact with cholesterol and fats and we are looking to see how cholesterol supports cell membranes,” he said.

Once thought to be the enemy of our arteries, new research has highlighted the importance of cholesterol to both cellular and lung health. Harroun’s work has also explored the importance of Vitamin E to cellular health.

Leading edge cancer treatments today include Gamma Knife Radiosurgery. Contrary to its name (the procedure isn’t surgery and doesn’t involve a knife) beams of radiation, two-hundred in total, converge on cancerous cells to more effectively kill tumors while protecting surrounding healthy tissues and provides new hope for those dealing with brain tumors and lesions.

Our history with nuclear medicine is a storied and varied. As Canada marks its 150th birthday there are many reasons to be proud of our many achievements that will continue to benefit the lives of people around the world for generations to come.

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Celebrating Canada 150: Nuclear Science and Innovation

From the birthplace of Confederation, Charlottetown, to the home of the nation’s capital, Ottawa, the fireworks send off to mark Canada’s 150th birthday is only one in a series of celebrations to acknowledge the storied history of our country. As Canada officially celebrates a century and a half we wanted to look back the contributions that our nuclear scientists have made to our country and beyond.

The latest numbers from the Canadian Cancer Society predict that 2 out of every 5 Canadians will develop cancer in their lifetime. While cancer can target people at any age, people over 50 are at the greatest risk for developing some form of cancer. Over the years, numerous advancements have been made in the field of cancer research but the work done by a team of researchers in Saskatoon arguably paved the way for today’s cancer treatments.

Sylvia Fedoruk, a pioneer in the field of medical physics, was the only woman in Canada working in the field in the 1950s. Fedoruk was a member of a University of Saskatchewan team working on cobalt-60 radiation therapy. Under the guidance of Dr. Harold Johns, Fedoruk and others were the first group in Canada to successfully treat a cancer patient using cobalt-60 radiation therapy. Thanks to their pioneering work, over 70 million people around the world have benefited from this type of treatment. In fact, the benefits of cobalt-60 machines go far beyond the Canadian border as cobalt-60 radiation therapy machines have been used all over the world to treat cancer patients.

Building on the early work of scientists, advancements in nuclear medicine include the use of alpha therapies. Through a targeted approach, cancer cells are blasted from the inside out, minimizing the damage to healthy tissues. These alpha-emitting isotopes are thought to be especially effective for people that are dealing with late-stage or metastasized cancers (cancer that has spread from one part of the body to another) and could be the basis for the next wave of cancer treatments.

“It’s a magic bullet for people in the cancer field because it has the beauty of sparing healthy tissues and finding and weeding out tiny tumours,” according to Dr. Tom Ruth, Special Advisor, Emeritus, TRIUMF.

Clean, reliable and sustainable energy is one of the pillars of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. Canada’s nuclear industry is a driving force of the economy, contributing over 6 billion dollars to the country and employing over 60,000 people both directly and indirectly.

Our CANDU technology helped spur opportunities for power generation. The Pickering nuclear power plant came on line in 1971 just four years after Douglas Point came online. Ontario was the first province to introduce nuclear into its electrical generation, New Brunswick would soon follow suit in the early 1980s. The efficiency and cleanliness of nuclear allowed Ontario to reduce emissions and provide energy security following the province’s decision to axe coal from electrical generation in 2014, eliminating smog days from the province. It is estimated that thanks to nuclear power production in Ontario alone, 45 million tonnes of carbon is removed from the atmosphere, equal to 10 million cars.

Canada’s history with nuclear generation goes back over half a century ago, when a team of engineers in Montreal developed the first reactor known as the National Research Experimental (NRX) reactor. The NRX, which came on line in 1947, led the way for research into isotopes and positioned Canada as a world leader in supplying the much-needed medical material all over the world ever since.

Communities are at the very core of the nuclear industry and you don’t need to look further than Cameco to see the positive impacts that community partnerships have. For over twenty-five years, Cameco Corporation has partnered with communities across Northern Saskatchewan as the largest private employer of First Nations and Metis people in Canada.

“More or less our community can have a future. Because of our young populations we need to be more sustaining and more certain, and this is one of the things that industry has brought to us, a lot of hope,” states Mike Natomagnan, the mayor of Pinehouse Lake and a former Cameco worker.

Canada’s nuclear industry continues to serve as a model for leadership, using science to find solutions to real world challenges. Our commitment to sustainable development and economic well-being is equal to our commitment to research and innovation. Powering the next generation of space travel is just one of the missions that Ontario Power Generation (OPG) is investing in.

A partnership between Technical Solutions Management (TSM), Ontario Power Generation (OPG), Canadian Nuclear Laboratories (CNL) and the U.S. Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) would support and augment the Department of Energy’s program to renew the production of Pu-238, allowing scientists to continue their exploration of our solar system and beyond.

“Our hope is to land a contract to expand the amount of Pu-238 that is available for space exploration,” stated Glen Elliott, Director, Business Development, Ontario Power Generation.

If approved, within five years, we could be ready to power future space ventures with Pu-238 partially produced in Canada. The concept would rely on a commercial reactor to produce the necessary isotope, specifically OPG’s Darlington reactor.

The future of nuclear science will continue to explore ocean health and the ecosystems that are vital to our food chain thanks to research and work with isotopes. Dr. Sherwood Lollar was recently appointed to the Order of Canada for her work in geochemistry looking at the movement of groundwater and tracking environmental contaminants.

Through innovation, we will welcome the next generation of reactors. These include SNC-Lavalin’s Advanced Fuel CANDU Reactor (AFCR) which takes the used fuel from light water reactors and repurposes it as new fuel for the CANDU, thus effectively recycling an important energy-rich waste stream, while reducing considerably the volume of CANDU reactor waste. The AFCR may shortly see the light of day in China.

The next generation also includes the development of small modular reactors (SMRs), ensuring an energy future that allows for healthier communities, removing diesel from the energy mix, continuing to cut back on greenhouse gas emissions and opening the door to cut carbon from the transportation sector through the development of hydrogen fuels. The heat potential locked in future reactors could provide opportunities for community agriculture production in the form of greenhouses, affording people healthier food regardless of where they live.

Our commitment to science and research holds the promise of continued advancements and leadership in health, the environment and energy. As we look back on the first 150 years of investments in nuclear science and technology, we are excited to see what the next 150 will bring and we are confident it will continue to build on a better tomorrow and a stronger Canada for all of us.

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Why We Say Nuclear Is Safe – And Why We Shouldn’t

Very few products market their safety.

For example, airlines do not advertise how many days it’s been since their last crash. In recent presentations, UK nuclear advocate Malcolm Grimston has taken the nuclear industry to task for its safety messaging approach.  He says safety is not the product. In a recent speech, he compared the nuclear industry that uses only facts to the Brexit Remain campaign, unable to counter the emotional arguments of the Leave side. In the case of the Brexit “Remain” vote, the facts were not enough.

Grimston is not alone. There is much research and literature on the perils of exclusively communicating facts. On some level, fear of nuclear can be a psychological phenomenon. Risk communication expert Peter Sandman says the risks likely to kill people are not necessarily the risks that concern them. There seems to be no correlation between the likelihood and severity of hazard and public fear. Many risks make people outraged but do little harm and other risks result in millions of deaths each year with little public outcry.

Then there is the backfire effect, which alarmingly shows that facts often don’t matter.  A Dartmouth experiment showed subjects two news stories – one with a misleading claim from President George W. Bush and the other with the claim plus a correction. Conservatives who read a news story which suggested Iraq had WMDs followed by a correction from a CIA study that indicated the opposite were more likely to believe Iraq had WMDs than Conservatives who read the story without the correction.  The research found that the effect of a correction is dependent upon one’s ideological predisposition. People engage in motivated reasoning. That’s because humans are goal-driven information processors, which means they interpret any information, positive or negative, to support their bias. Hence the backfire effect.

Despite what Grimston implies, the nuclear industry isn’t putting out facts about safety because it wants to. This is not happening in an experimental vacuum. A good deal of the safety messaging is to counter media coverage. Most people are aware of Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima. As this is written, a simple Google News search shows “Three Mile Island and nuclear” has a result from five hours ago, “Chernobyl and nuclear” has a result from two hours ago, and “Fukushima and nuclear” has a story from three hours ago. Nuclear energy runs 24/7, but so does news coverage of accidents that happened as far back as 38 years ago.

There is also the problem of frequency. People may perceive a greater probability of risk in something of which they are reminded on regular basis, whether it be by friends or the media.

In the mid-1960s, polling showed that a decrease in the amount of news coverage about nuclear power resulted in a decrease in opposition. But in 1968, news coverage of siting controversies increased the percentage of people opposed to nuclear. This trend was also seen in 1979 after the incident at Three Mile Island. Opposition increased in the two months after the accident in the spring, then steadily declined over the summer only to increase again in October and November when the media covered the Congressional report on the accident.

The media practice of featuring dueling experts in stories or on TV panels can have a negative impact on the nuclear industry’s safety message. This type of format leads to the public often concluding, “Well, if experts can’t agree then nuclear energy probably isn’t safe.”

Syracuse University sociologist Allan Mazur has found expert debates on technical subjects only increase public opposition to a technology. This means the media’s need to have a balance in coverage leads to a misconception that nuclear is not safe. Much like U.S. cable news networks have been criticized by environmentalists for giving too big a platform to climate change skeptics, an over exposure to the public of opposing views without factoring the scientific consensus can skew coverage of climate change or nuclear safety. “Thus truth in journalism is quite different from truth in science,” as Sandman has written.

Given this, what can those of us in the nuclear industry do?  Grimston’s advice to extol the benefits of nuclear can be effective. Polling conducted for the CNA has shown that providing respondents with positive information about nuclear in addition to safety, such as its role in climate change mitigation and how it can help those living in energy poverty or remote communities, can change opinions. Pre-information, 22 per cent of respondents supported nuclear, 31 per cent opposed and 47 per cent were undecided. Post information the number increased to 37 per cent in favour. While most of those opposed remained opposed, seven per cent of them supported nuclear post information and 36 per cent moved into the undecided group.

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Powering Space Missions with Nuclear Science

Recently, the Trump administration inked its commitment to future space missions with a $19.5 billion dollar budget announcement to the U.S. Space Agency. Among the projects NASA has slated include a human mission to Mars sometime after 2030 and a Canada-U.S. partnership could help to provide the power to get there.

Studying the solar system is no easy feat. Minimal sunlight and severe weather conditions are just two challenges that face outer space explorations. On Mars, nighttime temperatures can fall below -70 degrees Celsius and violent dust storms can destroy solar panels. Harsh environments and ever evolving missions require an effective power and heat source for spacecraft.

Enter nuclear science and radioisotope power systems.

Billions of miles away from a gas station or electric charging station, radioisotope power systems (RPS) have allowed scientists to research and study the limits of our solar system. Electricity is produced from the decay of the isotope plutonium 238 (Pu-238). As the isotope decays it gives off a tremendous amount of heat energy which is converted into electricity. With a half-life of 88 years, a radioisotope power system is able to provide continuous energy for long term deep space missions. As compared to solar power, an RPS can reach into deep space where solar power is ineffective.

However, there is a limited supply of Pu-238 that is needed for deep space research leaving the future of deep space exploration potentially in the dark.

Enter a Canadian-U.S. collaboration and a proposal to shift space research into high gear. A partnership between Technical Solutions Management (TSM), Ontario Power Generation (OPG), Canadian Nuclear Laboratories (CNL) and Pacific Northwest National Labs (PNNL) would support and augment the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) program to renew the production of Pu-238, allowing scientists to continue their exploration of the solar system.

“Our hope is to land a contract to expand the amount of Pu-238 that is available for space exploration,” according to Glen Elliott, Director, Business Development, Ontario Power Generation.

Mars Rover: Curiosity

If approved, the mission could be well on its way to powering future space ventures in the next 5 years, by 2022. The concept would rely on a commercial reactor to produce the necessary isotope, specifically OPG’s Darlington reactor.

“The flexibility of the plan makes it ideal. Depending on the mission requirements, it could be scaled up or down customizing the amount of fuel needed,” according to Elliott. “The Darlington reactor has online fueling capability and an ideal neutron flux so you can precisely control the irradiation time.”

A neutron flux is comprised of two elements; the speed and distance that the neutrons cover. Like football players on a field, the neutron flux is the speed at which the players are running and the total distance of the field that they cover.

The other benefit of the Darlington reactor is that it can produce the fuel needed for radioisotope power systems while performing its primary objective of producing electricity.

“This project is just another example of the broad economic and societal benefits of nuclear power. It provides clean, low-cost power, it helps in the medical world and if successful can be a part of the next generation of space travel,” said Jeff Lyash, President & Chief Executive Officer, Ontario Power Generation.

The proposal would help ensure an adequate global supply of Pu-238 for space missions and strengthen a Canada-U.S. partnership while creating jobs, boosting the economy and advancing the field of science exploration.