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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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There’s Uranium in Seawater. And it’s Renewable.

According to Natural Resources Canada, “renewable energy is energy obtained from natural resources that can be naturally replenished or renewed within a human lifespan.” This typically includes sunlight, wind and rain. Uranium has never made this list, as it is generally believed that uranium resources are finite. However this is not the case.

Researchers at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory exposed this special uranium-adsorbing fiber developed at ORNL to Pseudomonas fluorescens and used the Advanced Photon Source at Argonne National Laboratory to create a 3-D X-ray microtomograph to determine microstructure and the effects of interactions with organisms and seawater. Courtesy of Pacific Northwest National Laboratory
Researchers at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory exposed this special uranium-adsorbing fiber developed at ORNL to pseudomonas fluorescens and used the Advanced Photon Source at Argonne National Laboratory to create a 3D x-ray microtomograph to determine microstructure and the effects of interactions with organisms and seawater. Source: Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

While terrestrial uranium (the uranium we currently mine) is indeed limited in quantity, with known resources that will last another 100 years or so, there is uranium in seawater that naturally replenishes itself.

The uranium in seawater is controlled by steady-state chemical reactions between the water and rocks that contain uranium, such that whenever uranium is extracted from seawater, the same amount is leached from the rocks to replace it.

In fact, according to a Forbes Magazine article by James Conca, a scientist in the field of earth and environmental sciences, “it is impossible for humans to extract enough uranium to lower the overall seawater concentrations faster than it is replenished.”

Scientists envision anchoring hundreds of lengths of U-extracting fibers in the sea for a month or so until they fill with uranium. Then a wireless signal would release them to float to the surface where the uranium could be recovered and the fibers reused. It doesn’t matter where in the world the fibers are floating. Source: Andy Sproles at ORNL.
Scientists envision anchoring hundreds of lengths of uranium-extracting fibers in the sea for a month or so until they fill with uranium. Then a wireless signal would release them to float to the surface where the uranium could be recovered and the fibers reused. It doesn’t matter where in the world the fibers are floating. Source: Andy Sproles at ORNL.

Though the uranium concentration in seawater is only about 3 milligrams per cubic meter, the total volume of the ocean is about 1.37 billion cubic kilometers, which means there are about 4.5 billion tons of uranium in seawater at any given time.

There is currently a considerable amount of research being done on extracting uranium from seawater, most notably in Japan, China, and the United States. The latest technologies, which have emerged from Department of Energy’s (DOE) Pacific Northwest (PNNL) and Oak Ridge National Laboratories (ORNL), use polyethylene fibers coated with amidoxime to attract and bind uranium dioxide from seawater. These fiber braids are about 15 centimeters in diameter and can be several meters in length depending on where they are installed.

After a month or so, the fibers are brought to the surface, where they undergo an acid treatment that recovers the uranium and regenerates the fibers so that they can be reused.

“Finding alternatives to uranium ore mining is a necessary step in planning for the future of nuclear energy,” explained Stephen Kung at the DOE’s Office of Nuclear Energy to Forbes Magazine. But making the process economical is equally important.

The advances by PNNL and ORNL have reduced the cost of extraction by a factor of four in just 5 years, but the cost is still about $200/lb compared to traditional uranium mining which ranges between $10 and $120/lb.

Fortunately, the cost of uranium is a very small percentage of the cost of nuclear power. Therefore even at $200/lb, the cost of nuclear power would not increase dramatically.

Researchers continue to seek more efficient and economic ways to extract uranium from seawater, because the amount of uranium is truly unlimited. It is renewable energy in every sense of the word, and should be considered alongside solar, wind and hydro.