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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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Port Hope Area Initiative (PHAI)

It is the largest environmental remediation effort and the first of its kind in Canada. A massive clean-up and restoration is underway an hour and a half east of Toronto along the shore of Lake Ontario in the community of Port Hope.

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During the depression, there was a high demand for uranium ore. It meant money and jobs. The community of Port Hope was selected as the location to refine the ore that was shipped in from the North West Territories.  The rock was mined primarily for its usefulness in the field of medicine, for X-rays and cancer treatments. However, the knowledge about radium, chemical contamination and environmental impacts wasn’t well known in the 1930s.PortHope2

“Knowledge was different back then,” says Glenn Case, senior technical advisor with the Port Hope Area Initiative (PHAI). “The depression was on and there was a thirst for radium. Now there are radioactive elements in the soil and chemical contamination associated with the old ore from 1932-1954.”

From his home in Port Hope, Case talks frankly about the problems caused by the ore refining process during the Great Depression. He knows the project well, because his involvement with the Port Hope Area Initiative (PHAI) began almost 40 years ago, after his graduation.

In 1976, Case was hired to work in Port Hope on a two-month assignment addressing the situation of low-level waste found in properties in the area, fragments of uranium left in the soil. He has been part of the team responsible for developing a solution to removing the contamination.

Well known to the energy industry, the President at Women in Nuclear-Canada and a senior program manager for Bruce Power, Heather Kleb has spent 20 years working on environmental assessments and she was the lead for the PHAI environmental assessment.

“The PHAI is a big project with big expectations, 600,000 cubic meters of soil to be properly disposed of it took almost a decade to complete the regulatory approvals,” says Kleb.

“We needed to do comprehensive studies. We have knowledgeable communities because industry is here and there are ongoing consultations,” says Kleb. “Because it’s a nuclear project you also have to get approvals from the CNSC following the environmental assessment.”

PortHope1Today the project is fully underway with an expected completion date sometime in 2022. For the community of Port Hope the harbor and ravines once cleaned up will be able to be enjoyed by the community. Development constraints will also be lifted and a new green space will mark the past as Port Hope looks to the future.

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Neutron Beams & Airplane Safety

According to Statistics Canada, there were 5.4 million take-offs and landings at Canada’s ninety-two airports in 2014.airplaneimage

Everything is made of materials, even people. And those materials can be examined through non-destructive testing (NDT). It is exactly what it sounds like, a method to test materials without breaking or destroying them.

“In the past, they’d make the part bigger. That works and it works if it’s on the ground, but with an airplane, when you have to move through the air you are sensitive to weight,” according to Michael Gharghouri, a research scientist at CNL with a PhD in materials engineering. “So you really want to design just what you need. You can only do it if you understand the material very well.”

When it comes to flying, NDT is an effective method that can pick up potential problems long before a plane takes off.

That’s where Nray Services comes in. This small company has a big job. For the last twenty years, its shop in Dundas, Ontario has been testing engine turbine blades for 95% of the entire aerospace industry using a neutron beam.

There are four phases to jet propulsion according to Rankin MacGillivray, President of Nray: Suck, squeeze, bang and blow.

Intake is the suck that draws air into the jet engine.

Then the air is squeezed by compression within the aircraft’s engine.

The bang occurs when the fuel and the spark are added.

The blow pushes air out of the engine at the rear, and pushes the aircraft forward.

It is these small rings of blades, approximately four or five inches high, inside the engine that Nray tests.

“The blades are operating at temperatures higher than their melting points,” according to MacGillivray.

To compensate for the high temperatures, the blades have hollow passages that allow cool air to circulate inside them. Within this ceramic core, any blockage greater than a ¼ millimeter could prevent cooling and cause the blade to break up in flight. So accuracy matters very much.

“Ceramic is a light material compared to the blade material. It’s fairly heavy and if you look at an x-ray for example it can penetrate but it can’t see behind it”, says MacGillivray. “Neutron rays can see light materials behind heavy materials.”

Neutron beams don’t just provide highly accurate measurements. They also provide an early warning system.

“Very early on when they are designing so they can get information up front to do an informed design.” Gharghouri goes onto say,”Then at the other end when problems crop up that are unexpected so that they can tell them the problem and where it is without actually destroying the part.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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NRU is the Key to Canadian Nuclear Science and Innovation

The NRU reactor
The National Research Universal (NRU) reactor at Chalk River.

An advanced engineering and manufacturing economy – particularly one that values national autonomy and security – derives good value from having a nuclear research capability. The core of such a capability is a research reactor.

Canada has this capacity in the National Research Universal reactor (NRU), located in Chalk River, Ontario and operated by Canadian Nuclear Laboratories, formerly AECL. But it will lose this capacity when the reactor shuts down as planned by March 31, 2018.

The NRU, a high-capability research reactor, is the core in a Canada-wide nuclear research and development infrastructure. It underpins CANDU reactor technology used in nuclear power plants, and supports many life-enhancing applications in as medicine, crop science, and food safety.

The NRU is a strategic training infrastructure. It develops the human capital Canada needs to maintain its international credibility on nuclear energy, non-proliferation, safety and security policies. This expertise includes having the means to regulate nuclear activities and provide for the safety and security of our citizens.

Innovation involving the NRU is already occurring in a number of key areas, such as advanced reactor fuels – a key selling point for CANDU reactors in countries such as the UK and China; and improved safety margins – which is a national security imperative for Canada both at home and abroad.

Innovation is greatly stimulated where there are crucibles or clusters of research and development, even if small, in a specific geographical area. In the nuclear field there are key R&D clusters around Chalk River Laboratories, the Sylvia Fedoruk Centre for Nuclear Innovation in Saskatoon, and southern Ontario.

Together these, plus research facilities at more than a dozen universities, and major scientific facilities such as British Columbia’s TRIUMF and Saskatchewan’s Canadian Light Source (CLS), make up Canada’s “nuclear eco-system”. In southern Ontario, the cluster includes engineering, manufacturing and construction companies that build and maintain the infrastructure for nuclear power generation as well as nuclear R&D.

But the NRU also has a role, practically as well as symbolically, for the success of Canada’s foreign policy, national security, and global markets action plan.

Canada owns the CANDU reactor technology used by seven countries. We have recognized expertise in all areas of the nuclear fuel cycle, from the mining and milling of uranium to the fabrication of advanced fuels to decommissioning and waste management. We bring high safety and security norms to the world. We have a proliferation-resistant reactor design based on natural uranium, not enriched fuel.

The NRU supports operating power reactors in Canada, particularly in life extension. It provides the special conditions that allow testing, experimentation and problem-solving, essential in dealing with aging reactor components. High radioactive environments are necessary to replicate reactor conditions. The NRU provides these, but not just for Canadian-based CANDU reactors.

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CNL Invests in Hydrogen to Power the Future

Hydrogen laboratory at CNL
Hydrogen laboratory at Canadian Nuclear Laboratories (CNL).

Imagine a world where driving to work is no more harmful to the environment than walking or cycling. Where the burning of fossil fuels is a distant memory of a bygone era, long before advances in alternative energy sources for transportation were developed and commercially viable.

The promising science behind hydrogen as an energy source to power our everyday lives is a prospect that has captured the imagination of Canadian Nuclear Laboratories (CNL) researchers, and prompted CNL to open a new lab at its site in Chalk River, Ontario.

Hydrogen laboratory at CNLCNL’s advantage in exploring future hydrogen applications stems from its six decades of experience with hydrogen isotopes such as deuterium and tritium. (Deuterium is the heavy hydrogen in the water used to cool fissioning uranium in CANDU nuclear reactors. It’s exactly like the regular hydrogen that bonds with oxygen to produce water, except it has a neutron – the extra weight that makes the water “heavy.” Likewise, radioactive tritium has two neutrons.)

Hydrogen laboratory at CNLCNL’s depth of experience is now being applied to exploring large-scale production of hydrogen using technology that can be integrated with nuclear energy. Essentially, this technology would use surplus electricity – either nuclear or renewable – as the clean form of energy needed to produce this resource.

Where could it lead? The “hydrogen economy,” perhaps.  Hydrogen is a low-carbon energy source that someday could replace gasoline for transportation or natural gas for heating. Hydrogen is attractive because the only by-product from its use is water – the regular kind. The bottom line: no harmful emissions to the environment whatsoever.

Hydrogen laboratory at CNLIn opening his company’s $55 million lab in January 2015, CNL President & CEO Dr. Robert Walker said, “This new laboratory will enable state-of-the-art research to ensure a clean and healthy environment for Canadians through the development and use of clean energy technologies.”

“The work that will be carried out within these walls builds on CNL’s global leadership position in hydrogen technologies. It enables us to develop safe and secure options for Canada’s future energy needs. And it gives us the foundation to leverage and direct our capabilities into other industry sectors and international markets.”

Hydrogen laboratory at CNLThe new lab’s equipment comes from other innovative Canadian nuclear companies such as Kinectrics, TurnKey Modular Systems, Tyne Engineeringand Angstrom Engineering. Each piece of equipment enables an experimental process to measure the performance of a chemical or physical transformation involving hydrogen. For example, one of the rigs measures the rate at which hydrogen reacts with oxygen at various conditions using different catalytic materials.

CNL’s hydrogen lab is an excellent example of Canadian strength in science and technology, and a product of Canada’s work to explore civilian applications for nuclear technology.