Category Archives: Guest Blog

Guest Blog Nuclear Innovation Nuclear Pride Nuclear R&D

Nobel Prize Winner Returns Home to Tell a Fascinating “Big Science” Story

“I don’t want to do run-of-the-mill physics, I want to do something memorable.” Art McDonald, circa 1970

By Clemente Angiolillo and Ruxandra Dranga
[This article originally appeared in The Bulletin of the Canadian Nuclear Society.]

When the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences announced Arthur (Art) McDonald as a co-winner of the 2015 Nobel Prize for physics for a discovery the committee said “changes our view of the universe,” his former Atomic Energy of Canada Limited (AECL) colleagues and friends greeted the news with a smile and nostalgic reminisces of Art’s days at Chalk River Laboratories (CRL).  Among them are Davis Earle, a retired CRL physicist and resident of Deep River who started working with Art in 1973; and Bhaskar Sur, currently the Director of Canadian Nuclear Laboratories’ (formerly AECL) Nuclear Science Division.  Earle’s early work with Art took place in the heady days of basic physics research when they paired up for experiments to study two-photon decay in neutron-proton capture using neutrons from the NRU reactor.  Sur started working on the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory (SNO) experiment in 1989 when he was at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, California and continued to work on SNO directly with Art at Queen’s University and later with Davis Earle at CRL.  Ultimately, under Art’s leadership, SNO would make a major breakthrough on the study of the behavior of an elementary and enigmatic particle of the universe—the neutrino.

“This achievement is the result of the synthesis of over 30-years of work on particle physics, astrophysics and nuclear science that saw early germination at Chalk River Laboratories,” says Sur. “Later on, preliminary SNO results led to a major leap forward on how to measure sub-atomic phenomena that were never used to this extent before and have also provided new insights into the ‘Standard Model’ of physics, and indeed in our fundamental understanding of the entire universe,” Sur adds emphatically.


Pictured in 1986 in front of building 508 at Chalk River Laboratories, Nobel Prize winner Art McDonald, posing confidently on the far right, and Davis Earle, on the far left, flank the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory’s founding team. The initial spokesman for a solar neutrino experiment using Canadian heavy water was Professor Herb Chen (fifth from right), who proposed the concept in 1984 and tragically succumbed to cancer only a year after this photo was taken.

Even the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, which bestows the prize annually, acknowledged the ‘earth shook’ when it noted that the Standard Model of particle physics, which described the innermost workings of matter and resisted all experimental challenges for more than 20 years to this point, was now known to be incomplete. Neutrinos, produced in the core of stars by a fusion reaction, were described in the Standard Model as having zero-mass. Art’s work showed that this assumption was incorrect and revealed that they do have mass as well as other amazing characteristics. The SNO experiments essentially rewrote the balance sheet of the universe and have implications for its origins and nature. After the light-carrying particles known as photons, neutrinos are the most abundant particles in the universe as oceans of them are left over from the Big Bang, and many more are produced in stars and in nuclear reactors. They race through the earth and our own bodies like wind through a screen door and they also come in three different identities, or “flavours,” (a technical colloquialism) — which was the key to their eventual unmasking.

On October 16, 2015, Art McDonald returned home to Deep River’s Mackenzie Community School where former colleagues and current CNL staff packed the Childs Auditorium to the rafters to hear Art talk about the SNO experiment that would define his long career. The focus of his talk was the amazing story of an ambitious, risk-laden project for which McDonald served as Director since 1989, which required the building of the most sensitive neutrino detector created to date. Overall, the project is a remarkable engineering achievement in its own right; a massive construction project that resulted in the creation of an ultra-clean, 10-storey-high cavity, two kilometers underground in INCO Ltd’s Creighton nickel mine in Sudbury.  In the centre of the cavity was a 12-meter diameter acrylic vessel containing 1,000 tons of heavy water (worth $300 million and on loan from AECL).  If that doesn’t sound ambitious enough, SNO would be the first neutrino detector with the ability to detect all three flavours of neutrinos (electron, muon, and tau) and distinguish electron neutrinos from the other two. The depth of the detector’s location was essential to the study as it reduced interference from cosmic rays by many orders of magnitude. Additional steps were required to minimize interference from other sources of radiation and, in fact, the levels of radiation at the centre of the vessel are believed to be the lowest on earth.  Once the facility was established, the rest is history. Although the road to the Nobel Prize was laden with challenges and missteps along the way, the project would yield tremendous results to the team’s knowledge of the universe. For CNL, which has been a forerunner in the establishment of the global nuclear industry since World War II and continues to be on the vanguard of nuclear science and technology, it illustrates how history reaches forward and supports the organization’s brand today. Art and many former AECL employees, like Davis Earle, made incredible contributions to the SNO experiment, and it is difficult to conceive of the experiment’s success without those contributions and time spent at Chalk River Laboratories.


Almost three decades after posing for the grainy, black and white photo (above) with the SNO group, Art would return to Deep River to tell his amazing story of discovery that would define his career and earn him the Nobel Prize.

Bolstering Canada’s ‘big science’ brand

Malcolm Harvey, a former Director of Physics at CRL who worked with Art, recounts a memorable conversation he had with McDonald in the early 1970’s when Art came into his office and hinted at the ‘big science’ work that he wanted to pursue. After settling into a chair in Harvey’s office, Art confided something to Malcolm that he has never forgotten to this day: “I don’t want to do run-of-the-mill physics,” he uttered in a plain-spoken, unanimated tone, “I want to do something memorable.” Harvey recounts that moment with Art with a sense of pride and as if the conversation happened yesterday.  Personal achievement and professional admiration aside, the Noble Prize is also a win for ‘big science’ in Canada, whose representative institutions are very few and far between in the nation, and would include CNL’s Chalk River Laboratories; TRIUMF in British Columbia; Saskatoon’s Canadian Light Source; and of course SNO, which was initially a grand experiment and more recently has spun-off SNOLAB. For CNL specifically, Art’s win is a shining reminder that some of Canada’s, indeed the world’s, greatest scientific minds have strode through its doors, and CNL can proudly claim to have employed four of the world’s Nobel laureates for extended periods: John Cockcroft, CRL’s first Director when CRL was still under the auspices of the National Research Council of Canada; Geoffrey Wilkinson, a chemist who was at CRL in its early days; Bertram Brockhouse, who did his pioneering work at the NRX and NRU reactors and devised an ingenious method and technologies to probe the crystal structure of materials; and now of course Art McDonald for SNO.

‘Big science’ is a big investment: Davis Earle reflects on the early days

Art came to Chalk River in 1969 as a postdoctoral fellow and progressed to Senior Research Officer prior to his departure in 1982, and although Davis Earle is not familiar with Art’s early work, he vividly recalls the latter years of his career at CRL. They collaborated on a number of experiments culminating in a search for parity violation in deuterium using the electron accelerator at Chalk River. At the time, the Russians were actively pursuing this line of study and their initial conclusions contradicting the Standard Model turned out to be in error according to Earle as he reflects on the early days of the project.

“Although we were unable to get the statistical sensitivity required, we were realizing what it takes to look for very small signals, and it was just at this time that a suggestion by Professor Herb Chen from the University of California, Irving of a solar neutrino experiment using Canadian D2O and an existing Sudbury mine arrived on our doorstop. At the time we thought ‘this is just the kind of basic research we were looking to pursue’ and we jumped at the opportunity,” Earle exclaims. “I basically turned to it full time as I was doing basic research from the day I walked into CRL, essentially curiosity driven work that contributes to knowledge as opposed to applied research work for industry. By 1984, Art was at Princeton and in addition to teaching he invested considerable time into the Sudbury experiment. Other university professors also quickly came on board as advocates and as early contributors to the project. To get it going, we had to convince funding agencies that:  a) it is a good idea with potential; and b) we can do it—that essentially it is worth the investment and the results would contribute to our knowledge. That took another six years and it wasn’t easy as we were competing with other good ideas for the same scarce dollars. But because we had a good idea, and the heavy water—compliments of AECL—as well as the availability of the existing Creighton mine, we felt we had a leg up on the competition for funding dollars and the other experiments we were competing with had to admit our idea was also a worthy one to support.”


Located two kilometers below the earth’s surface, the depth of the detector’s location was essential to the study as it reduced interference from cosmic rays by many orders of magnitude. Additional steps were required to minimize interference from other sources of radiation and the levels of radiation at the centre of the vessel are believed to be the lowest on earth.

Ultimately the team got the money to build and early data revelations were an amazing journey for Art, Davis and company.  Earle says one important lesson learned from the experience was that funding agencies sometimes don’t always appreciate that it is not enough to simply fund such big projects. Once you commit to funding ‘big science’ research projects that are breaking new ground in construction and installation, you also have to be prepared to add funds when there are setbacks. “We were ‘boldly going where no one had gone before’ and cost overruns are a reality,” he adds. “In addition, these projects are not-for-profit with no source of income, thus operating funds must also be provided.”

Great science and great scientists enrich us all. They enable technologies that ease our lives, or, as in Art’s case, they show us what’s beyond our horizons and the disciplines that ask the biggest questions and find the deepest explanations are the fundamental sciences.  Looking back on Art’s work serves as a testament to what is possible when you set high ambitions, work hard to build support for an intrepid project and assemble the right people as part of a team. It takes drive and dedication to convince groups to support a project with such obvious risk, much less challenge existing scientific knowledge and to make breakthrough discoveries, or what Art framed as wanting to “do something memorable” and not “run-of-the-mill.” Surrounded by family and friends, young and older, on that night Art seemed larger than life among former colleagues and the assembled crowd, and his story of true discovery brought another reward his way—the admiration of peers who are proud to see one of their own achieve such a pinnacle.


Clemente Angiolillo and Ruxandra Dranga work at CNL’s Chalk River Laboratories. Clemente is a writer and communications officer. Ruxandra is a reactor physics analyst.

Environment Guest Blog Nuclear Energy

Talking Climate Change at WiN Global

By Heather Kleb
WiN Canada

In late August 2015, I had the pleasure of joining more than 400 Women in Nuclear (WiN)–Global members, from over 60 countries, at our annual conference in Vienna, Austria. Hosted by WiN–IAEA at the offices of the United Nations, the conference featured sessions on: medical use of radiation, safeguards and non-proliferation, nuclear security, and energy, environment and climate change.

Agneta Rising
Agneta Rising

One of the highlights of the conference was a climate-change panel with representatives from six countries. Among them was the Director General of the World Nuclear Association, Agneta Rising. Ms. Rising reminded participants of how quickly nuclear ramped up in the 70’s and that only one country (Germany) is now phasing out nuclear. This important context needs to be included in any discussion of the future of nuclear, and its role in mitigating climate change.

Climate change was also the focus of discussions during the WiN–Global board and executive meetings, where board members agreed to call for member support of a “Declaration of Nuclear for Climate.” The Declaration, which builds on the May 2015 agreement signed by 39 nuclear associations and 50,000 scientists from 36 countries, supports Nuclear for Climate’s global initiative to recognize the contribution of nuclear as a solution to climate change.

The WiN–Global declaration further reinforced that any discussion of low-carbon solutions that excludes nuclear is incomplete. Members of WiN-Canada were among the signatories to the Declaration, which requested that the “UNFCCC (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) Protocols recognize nuclear energy as a low-carbon energy option, and that it be included in its climate funding mechanisms, as is the case for all low-carbon energy sources.”

Guest Blog

WiN-Canada Gears Up for 10th Annual Conference

By Cheryl Cottrill
Executive Director
WiN Canada

WiN-Canada’s 10th Annual Conference is being held in Pembroke, Ontario, September 29 to October 1. Our theme, “Seize the Future – Innovation in the Nuclear Industry,” will help delegates align with the current trends in nuclear and related industries and learn how to flourish in a change environment, to better position themselves for future success.

The conference will provide practical knowledge on technical and non-technical topics from a line up of inspirational speakers. Registration, open to men and women, is up and running. The link to the conference webpage is:

Providing an opportunity for our members to speak at the conference, we will be continuing our tradition of the mini-session. The call for papers is available on the conference webpage.

Joan Vogelesang, known as Toon Boom’s globetrotter CEO, will provide our keynote address. Joan will speak about her own success story, which includes winning Academy Awards for Engineering excellence, and how to innovate to stay ahead of the curve.

Networking opportunities include a Golf Fore the Cure 9-hole tournament and two receptions. In addition to the plenary session, delegates will have the opportunity to choose one of five technical tours.

Looking forward to seeing you in Pembroke, September 29-October 1!

Guest Blog Nuclear Education

Everything You Wanted to Know about Nuclear Technology and Were Afraid They’d Ask

By Alex Wolf
Manager, Research and Education
Canadian Nuclear Association

Ever wanted to brush up on your understanding of nuclear technology? Well, if you’re interested in being in the Hamilton area next week, the Canadian Nuclear Society is putting on their Nuclear 101 course. It’s a two-day course being held on May 13-14 at McMaster University.

This is an excellent course for anyone to take – regardless of level of technical background. I’m a radiobiologist by trade, so certain things I obviously already knew, but I learned a lot about the history of nuclear in Canada and the engineering considerations involved in the fuel cycle. And it’s all delivered at a level for the layperson to understand.

I had a great time at this course, and it delivered exceptional value for the money and time spent. If you’re not able to make it to next week’s session, I highly recommend you stay posted on future events. A little knowledge goes a long way.

For more information, visit

Guest Blog Nuclear Medicine

The Medical Isotopes Supply Chain

Today’s post comes from guest contributor at Nordion.

Nuclear medicine is one of the most powerful analytical tools available to physicians and patients today because of its ability to provide dynamic views of organ structure and function. Medical isotopes are used to diagnose potentially life-threatening conditions such as heart disease and to treat serious diseases such as cancer.

About one million nuclear medicine procedures are performed in Canada annually. In the U.S., there are some 18 million nuclear medicine procedures per year among 311 million people, and in Europe about 10 million among 500 million people. Canada has been one of the global leaders in the supply of medical isotopes to the world’s medical community. Tc-99m is used in about 80% of all diagnostic nuclear imaging procedures.

Medical isotopes have a short shelf life and therefore cannot be inventoried. Before they can be used in patient procedures, the materials used in nuclear medicine are developed through a multi-step supply chain process.

This graphic summarizes the process.


Watch this video to understand how medical isotopes make their complex (but necessarily quick) journey, from reactor to patient:


Guest Blog

Toronto Electric Transit: Clean, Affordable, and Nuclear Powered

Today’s post comes from guest contributor Steve Aplin. Steve works at the HDP Group and authors the great blog, Canadian Energy Issues.

Toronto is a beautiful, modern, clean, world-class city which is—sometimes unfairly—nicknamed The Big Smoke. The nickname comes from the smog that sometimes hovers over the city on hot summer days. Smog is caused in part by fossil fuel combustion, and in Toronto that means cars. Therefore the city’s biggest and most effective weapon against smog is its electric-powered subways and streetcars.

Subways and streetcars run on steel rails, and rail transportation is far more efficient, in terms of fuel used per kilometer traveled, than road transportation. And electric-powered rail is far more efficient than fossil-powered. If the electricity comes from mostly zero-carbon sources, as it does in Ontario, then electric rail transit is, on a passenger-by-passenger basis, twenty to eighty times as clean as car transportation.

In 2010, the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) used 4.4 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity to move millions of passengers on electric subways and streetcars. Most of those 4.4 billion kWh came from Ontario’s three nuclear power plants. Because most of that electricity came from nuclear plants, each individual subway or streetcar rider’s carbon footprint was tiny: nuclear emits no smog or greenhouse gas pollution.

And because Toronto’s subways and streetcars are mostly nuclear powered, TTC fares were low—nuclear is among the least expensive types of electricity in Ontario.

Nuclear energy is affordable because it is also among the most efficient and reliable ways we know to make electricity.

So I congratulate all Toronto subway and streetcar riders: every day you prove that modern transportation is affordable, reliable, and clean.