Category Archives: Nuclear R&D

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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.

BLOG1986

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.

ALMOST3DECADES

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.”

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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.

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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.

Nuclear R&D Uncategorized

A Sunny View of Risk

By John Stewart
Director, Policy and Research
Canadian Nuclear Association

Blue-eyed John Stewart
Blue-eyed John Stewart

Like many blue-eyed, middle-aged men who’ve been hiking, cycling, canoeing and kayaking since childhood, I have basal cell carcinoma, in the form of little low-grade cancerous spots on my skin.

Exposure to non-sun radiation is one of the main risk factors. It’s apparently #2 after too much sunshine – and not counting being blue-eyed, middle-aged, and male, none of which I can be expected to avoid, at least not at this point.

So how come the medical advice I get doesn’t say anything about avoiding licensed nuclear facilities? My doctors know what I do for a living, but none of them tell me to stay clear of Chalk River, Blind River, Kincardine, Port Hope, Darlington or Pickering.

Instead, the advice I get from them is 90% about hats, shirts, glasses and sunscreen (fair enough). About 5% is about avoiding tanning beds and sun lamps (no problem). About 3% is about staying in the shade (ha!). And the remaining 2% is about taking vitamin D so I won’t mind sitting in the shade for the rest of my life.

Why nothing about the nuclear industry? Because emissions from nuclear facilities are so low, they don’t matter.

The non-sun radiation sources that health care organizations talk about include anything other than nuclear power plants, including:

  • Cancer treatment itself (radiation to treat a first cancer might cause a second cancer)
  • Naturally occurring radon gas in my basement
  • Weapons testing programs that occurred before I was born.

Why nothing about the nuclear industry? Again: emissions from nuclear facilities are so low, they don’t matter.

Nuclear Energy Nuclear R&D

An Integral Part of Today’s Technologies

By John Stewart
Director, Policy and Research
Canadian Nuclear Association

A business-school professor made an interesting remark to me recently. “Nuclear technology let itself get branded from the start, in the 1940s, as being unique and special,” he said. “But that may have hurt the technology. It helped your critics to argue that nuclear is uniquely and specially dangerous. From there, it was easy to say that nuclear needed uniquely, specially restrictive rules around it – or even to say that there’s no safe amount of nuclear, period.”

He’s right. And we could spend a while discussing his point.

But there’s another way in which nuclear’s perceived uniqueness-and-specialness hurts our industry: It makes it easy to  imagine that nuclear companies, facilities and professionals are hidden away somewhere in isolated shiny silos that don’t interact with, or affect, the rest of our economy.

The figure below shatters that image. It was made by the consultancy SECOR to illustrate some (in fact, just a few) of the working linkages between this country’s nuclear-related public research facilities and other industry sectors.

Some Linkages Between Public Nuclear S&T Facilities and Other Industry Sectors
Some linkages between public nuclear science and technology facilities and other industry sectors (CNBC= Canadian Neutron Beam Centre, CLS=Canadian Light Source, SRC= Saskatchewan Research Council, UNB= University of New Brunswick).

Keep in mind that this web of linkages was never fully drawn (data from several important universities did not get included).  And that it does not include research facilities in industry organizations like Ontario Power Generation, Kinectrics-Candesco, and many other CNA member companies that have intimate working relationships with non-nuclear industries.

Nuclear is an integral part of today’s technologies, from crops and livestock to jet engines. CNA made this and other points this month in a submission to the federal government’s Science, Technology and Innovation Strategy Consultation. Our submission also looks at the economic case for public research infrastructure, whether in telecommunications, defence, agriculture, or nuclear. Check it out here.

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What Kind of Environmentalist Endorses Nuclear? An Informed and Realistic One.

There’s an interesting article on Slate.com today called The Pro-Nukes Environmental Movement: After Fukushima, is nuclear energy still the best way to fight climate change?

The article says what we’ve been saying for a while: that while renewable energy sources such as wind and solar are part of a clean energy mix, they simply can’t meet the world’s growing energy demands in the next few decades without some unforeseen leap forward in grid-scale energy storage. When the wind isn’t blowing, when the sun isn’t shining, and when you don’t have a way to efficiently store huge amounts of power, where does the power come from? Unfortunately in many circumstances, that need is filled by burning fossil fuels like coal and gas.

Nuclear’s reliable base load power, combined with advances in electrifying our transportation systems, is the cleanest way to get off fossil fuels that are, as this article says, cooking the planet.

But the article does raise some concerns – the same concerns that are always raised when talking about nuclear power: capital cost and waste. It also mentions the nuclear renaissance, which, before Fukushima, was underway as the world was recognizing the opportunity for nuclear to help us quit coal and reduce emissions.

The article concludes by talking about “next generation” technology: reactors that are able to efficiently burn the used-fuel and include even more redundant safe guards (our backups have backups).

I asked our policy director, John Stewart, to touch on the cost issue and explain a bit about next generation technology: How far away is it and what’s the hold up?

Well, first, let’s point out that “current generation” nuclear power is already very good – especially when you’re looking at the carbon issue.  A technology with zero carbon emissions in today’s operation is still going to be at zero in its next generation.  If it’s carbon you’re concerned about, today’s nuclear technology is unbeatable. I’m abstracting, of course, from marginal improvements in the way we build or refuel the plants – we can use cleaner trucks to deliver the uranium fuel to the plant, or lower-carbon concrete technologies when we pour the foundation, but that’s about it.

The reactor “generations” you’re talking about is a classification system developed by the US Department of Energy and described in detail at www.energy.gov.  Reactor technology has been advancing just like technology in many other areas over the past three decades.  In cars or phones or computers, we’ve all been aware of those advances because everyone buys the results.  In nuclear, reactors are advancing but virtually nobody in North America has been buying the results.  The reactors we see are mostly older technology, dating back often to the seventies and eighties.  They work just fine, they’re safe, they’re clean, they’re very economical, but they do not reflect the state of the art, which is mostly being bought and built in places like China and India – or will be over the coming decade or two.

So the short answer about next generation technology is it’s not far away, and the hold up is just demand.  Regulatory processes aside, advanced reactor technology is available – it’s largely a matter of building it.

DOE_ReactorGenerations
Source: http://nuclear.energy.gov/genIV/documents/gen_iv_roadmap.pdf

Conversations about cost have to be clear – are we talking about up-front capital investment, that is the plant construction cost, or are we talking about the average cost of generating a unit of power?  Nuclear’s record is very clear – it is one of the most affordable ways to get a unit of power in the long run.   It’s now selling for about six cents a kilowatt hour in Ontario, a real bargain especially considering how clean it is.  One of the main reasons is that the plants are so durable, lasting for fifty to sixty years.  When a capital asset is amortized over a period that long, capital costs can be very large and they still shrink in importance.  The unit cost of power over that six decades is very low. 

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National S&T Week Kicks Off With A Record Breaking Science Lesson

This year, to kick off National Science and Technology Week, Canada decided to do something special. By organizing a science experiment to be conducted simultaneously across over 135 locations nationwide, and involving well over 3,000 participants, we collectively submitted an attempt to the Guinness Book of World Records for the largest science experiment ever conducted! Final numbers of participants will be available in a few weeks to verify that the record was set.

National Science and Technology Week spans October 12 – 21, 2012, and the record-setting experiment took place at precisely 1:00pm EST on opening day. This special week raises awareness of the importance of science and technology in our daily lives, and celebrates Canada’s historic and ongoing role as a leader in technological innovation.

Here at the Canadian Nuclear Association, we are proud to celebrate this week. Canada is one of the world’s nuclear pioneers, and continues to find success with advancements of its historically innovative CANDU reactor technology. In addition to producing approximately 15% of national electricity supply, CANDU reactors are also used internationally in six other countries.

Canada is also a chief innovator in nuclear medicine technology, having given birth to the use of Cobalt-60 as a powerful isotope in radiation therapy, as well as producing between 20-30% of the world’s supply of medical isotopes used for treatment and diagnostic imaging in almost 60 countries.

The record-setting experiment was performed at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology (UOIT), one of Canada’s fastest-growing universities, by a group of 46 students all from the highly regarded Nuclear Engineering program. These students represent the bright, young generation upcoming in Canada’s vibrant nuclear industry, and their enthusiasm is what made this event possible. In fact, of all the venues involved in this nationwide experiment, almost all were educational facilities!

As we await the announcement on the success of the experiment, we continue to recognize the importance of investment in science and technology to drive our industries forward. Through continued investment in nuclear technology, Canada is empowered to stay on the cutting edge of nuclear innovation, and produce advances towards benefiting the health, safety, and livelihood of Canadians and people around the world.

About the Science Lesson

Across Canada, participants conducted experiments that explored the Bernoulli principle which states that as a constant volume of fluid (or air) increases in speed, it experiences a corresponding decrease in pressure. This is the principle responsible for how airplane wings work, as the curvature of the wing creates a pressure difference between the air above and below it, resulting in motion in the direction of lower pressure and less resistance – up.

In the case of the experiments, the principle was demonstrated by blowing through a straw in a glass of water and between two balloons.

 UOIT’s Nuclear Engineering Training Ground

The UOIT Radiation Detection Laboratory is home to several specialized detectors for teaching students how to measure different types of radiation.

Graduate students travel from around the world to practice and be tested on UOIT’s brand new CANDU reactor simulator.
This general purpose laboratory features impressive and powerful equipment, such as the X-Ray Fluorescence Spectrometer pictured on the left-side desk.

Nuclear News Nuclear R&D

Journal Launch: AECL Nuclear Review

TalkNUclear is pleased to share the news that AECL has just launched AECL Nuclear Review, Canada’s newest journal for nuclear science and technology.

AECL Nuclear Review - Vol. 1, No. 1 June 2012

AECL Nuclear Review showcases innovative and important nuclear science and technology that is aligned with AECL’s core programs. The Journal welcomes original/novel articles and technical notes in a variety of subject areas: CANDU Nuclear Industry; Nuclear Safeguards and Security; Clean Safe Energy including Gen IV, Hydrogen Technology, Small Reactors, Fusion, Sustainable Energy and Advanced Materials; Health, Isotopes and Radiation; and Environmental Sciences. The accepted peer reviewed articles are expected to span different disciplines such as engineering, chemistry, physics, and biology.

AECL Nuclear Review welcomes Canadian and international research scholars and scientists from different disciplines to its new publication which reflects the integration of scientific researchers and industrial practitioners.

If you would like to submit an article for consideration, or, wish to reach any member of the editorial team, please get in touch:
JANL@aecl.ca or 1-800-364-6989 (Corporate Communications)

Click to download the first issue of AECL Nuclear Review (8MB)