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Innovations we Need – Now, and for Generations

By John Stewart
Director, Policy and Research
Canadian Nuclear Association

In case you missed this in the early January darkness: A Canadian team based at Vancouver-area TRIUMF has demonstrated a practical answer to the impending shortage of medical isotopes.

Technetium-99m (TC-99m), a commonly used isotope for medical imaging and diagnosis, has until now mainly been derived from molybdenum-99 from the NRU research reactor in Ontario. But the NRU is scheduled to end molybdenum production in 2016.

Industry experts were warning that this would leave global supplies of TC-99m very tight and vulnerable to shortages. But Canada’s nuclear science and technology know-how, with support from the federal government, has been working on answers. The team uses a common brand of medical cyclotron – developed and manufactured in Canada – to make TC-99m without a reactor.

Yanick Lee (right) and Ran Klein (centre) show off the Ottawa Hospital’s cyclotron.
The cyclotron at the Ottawa Hospital produces isotopes used for PET scans, which allow cardiac and cancer patients to receive precisely targeted treatments.

Nuclear technology doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It’s an integral part of our health care system, helping Canadian doctors to help their patients faster, better, and less intrusively. Not to mention an integral part of our materials science, which supports our whole manufacturing and engineering capability. Not to mention an integral part of our low-carbon, low-cost electric power supply.

Nuclear technology solves real-world problems that affect our quality of life: How long we live. How well our cars run. How safely our planes land. How affordable energy is.

As we noted in our last post, timely solutions like the isotope breakthrough may only be the tip of the iceberg compared to what nuclear innovation could bring humanity in coming decades. The world’s demand for low-carbon energy and clean air is probably the biggest single challenge we face as a species.  And it is increasingly clear that nuclear is the only minimal-carbon energy that can be there on the scale we need, when we need it.

Many reactor designs can be part of that solution, which will be global in scale. Here are some examples of CNA member organizations working in science and technology partnerships right now to make it happen:

  • Burnaby, BC-based General Fusion, which has a prototype fusion reactor, has a cooperative research and development agreement (CRADA) with the U.S. Department of Energy’s Los Alamos National Laboratory, and is putting them in place with the Lawrence Berkeley National and Princeton Plasma Physics labs.
Terrestrial
Terrestrial Energy’s IMSR80.
  • Mississauga, ON-based Terrestrial Energy, which is developing integral molten salt reactors, recently announced an initial collaboration with USDOE’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the home of the original working MSR design.
  • CNA members GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy (GHNE) and Westinghouse Electric, plus Areva Federal Services, have joined with USDOE’s Argonne National Laboratory in a partnership on next-generation reactors.

National laboratories don’t form these partnerships just to make headlines. They’re looking to solve big problems. Canada and CNA members are going to be part of those answers.