CNA Visits AECL’s Chalk River Laboratories

Last month, the CNA was invited to tour the Atomic Energy of Canada Limited (AECL)’s Chalk River Laboratories (CRL). If you thought Chalk River was all about the National Research Universal (NRU) reactor, you are mistaken. There is so much going on at Chalk River, it’s really quite incredible.

We began our tour by signing in with security at the CRL outer gate. “Safety first” in the nuclear industry extends to security, which at CRL is impressive to say the least. After checking in and receiving our visitor badges, we were off with our tour facilitators, Pat and Philip from AECL Site and Community Affairs.

First stop on the tour was the Waste Analysis Facility (WAF). Completed in 2008, the WAF is where waste that is believed to be clean (known as “Likely Clean”) is checked before being sent for recycling or disposal. It’s the final safety test before clean waste leaves the AECL site. If contamination is found (less than half of a percent of total material) the item is sent for decontamination or storage on-site. Materials verified as clean are taken off-site by trucks, which also pass through sensitive vehicle monitors to make sure no contamination leaves the site. EVER.  This is also a big advantage as it has allowed AECL to implement new programs to recycle more material, and, in many cases reduces the cost of storage. AECL does waste storage for materials generated on-site but it also serves to safely store and secure radioactive waste from hospital, schools and lab facilities from across the country.

Here we are in front of the Brockhouse Building at AECL’s Chalk River Labs

Next we arrived at the Brockhouse Building for a presentation by Bill Kupferschmidt, the Vice-President of Research and Development, at AECL’s Nuclear Labs. But first, a safety brief: alarms will sound if there is an emergency, you go to the predetermined meeting spot, and there is an easy number to call to report an emergency, any questions? No? Then we’ll begin.

The presentation took us through the history of CRL. It’s the birthplace of Canada’s nuclear technology and has a 60-year nuclear legacy. Today CRL is the “knowledge base” of the Canadian industry. It’s a major producer of medical isotopes and a leader in nuclear environmental stewardship. The nuclear labs are applying science and technology for the benefit of Canadians and the world by way of specialized expertise, facilities and the unique ability to work with radioactive materials. It is truly impressive stuff! The Chalk River Laboratories are home to many facilities that can be found nowhere else in Canada.  These facilities, along with the people that work within them, play a big role in the scientific and industrial communities in Canada.

Our next stop on the tour was the Surface Sciences Lab. This is where expertise in a variety of disciplines – metallurgy, chemistry, physics, microscopy – all comes into play to solve any number of industrial materials challenges, and help make the industry safer and more efficient

AECL’s key areas of expertise include: material identification, characterization and qualification; mechanical failure analysis; corrosion analysis; non-destructive testing and analysis; sample preparation for metallographic and surface analysis; metallographic examination; characterization of radioactive specimens; and process qualifications including decontamination and cleaning.

Surface Sciences Lab

Complementary to the surface analysis capabilities are the remote-handling facilities for examining and testing irradiated materials and equipment. The Shielded Facilities include a reactor bay for receiving and initial processing of materials, shielded flasks for transferring highly radioactive materials, and hot cells!

The hot cells contain state-of-the-art equipment used to conduct post-irradiation examination (PIE) experiments and testing of radioactive materials. Mechanical arms behind shielded walls and windows allow the work to be done safely. The hot cells were this blogger’s favourite part of the tour.

Shielded Facilities

But then, we hadn’t yet arrived at the NRU. National Research Universal (NRU); a landmark achievement in Canadian science and technology. Completed in 1957, the NRU provides a unique facility for scientists across Canada through the National Research Council (NRC) and many others. Professor Bertram Brockhouse won a Nobel Prize in physics for his work at NRX (National Research Experimental, NRU’s predecessor) and NRU on neutron scattering. The technique he pioneered enables scientists today at the NRC Canadian Neutron Beam Centre at NRU to investigate materials with neutrons. In fact, each year over 200 professors, students and industrial researchers use this unique and powerful national resource. We are just “beaming” with pride!

NRU is also where the fundamental knowledge required to produce and evolve Canada’s CANDU fleet emerged AND where much of the world’s life-saving medical isotopes are produced.

Waste analysis, a history of CRL, surface sciences, hot cells, NRU — and all before lunch! In the second half of the tour we visit Zed-2, tritium and hydrogen research technologies, inspection technologies, and end with the Biological Research Facility. Read part two of CNA Visits AECL 2011 tomorrow on the TalkNuclear blog.

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