Monthly Archives: October 2015


Exploring Mars: Nuclear Power Makes it Possible

Three years after landing on Mars, the Curiosity rover is still going strong. The size of an SUV, rovers have been leading the way in scientific discoveries on the Red Planet by collecting pictures and data. Since 2012 the rover mission has been powered by nuclear energy.mars rover

“Previous rovers were solar powered and the life span wasn’t long, but the switch to nuclear allowed it to live longer,” according to Dr. Ashwin Vasavada, a lead scientist on a team of 500 experts who are the eyes and ears on Earth for rover’s missions.

“Dust would accumulate on the solar panels over time and there is no way to clean the panels,” says Vasavada. “You can’t bring water with you. So in order to remove that risk we went to a longer, more reliable power supply.”

Curiosity carries about five kilograms of on-board nuclear power. Heat and electricity are generated by the decay of plutonium-238. As it erodes, it transforms itself into uranium-234. This change gives off a tremendous amount of heat, some of which circulates through Curiosity to keep the instruments warm, and some which converts into electricity to keep the rover working 24/7.

That’s where Ryan Bechtel comes in, along with his team at the Office of Space and Defense Power Systems at the U.S. Department of Energy. As a power systems safety manager for NASA, he and his fellow engineers are responsible for powering Curiosity.

The rover’s power system uses a design based on similar technology used for the Viking landers in the 1970s.It’s called a Multi Mission Radioisotopic Thermoelectric Generator (MMRTG). Approximately two feet high and two feet in diameter, the MMRTG keeps the rover going around the clock. That’s an accomplishment, in a world where nighttime temperatures usually drop well below -70C – and sometimes reach -100C.

“It makes operations significantly easier because you don’t have to worry about the weather conditions and where the sun is pointed in the sky depending on season or time of day,” says Bechtel. “So it allows for continuous charging for the battery, which ultimately results in more science being collected.”

Innovation—some of it Canadian—turns up in other Curiosity systems, including the Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer (APXS). This instrument, funded by the Canadian Space Agency, sits on the rover’s arm, looking down at the surface. It detects and analyzes the chemical elements within the rocks and soil. This helps scientists to determine more precisely the history of Mars, and to assess whether the Red Planet could ever have supported life.

While the science teams are sifting through Curiosity’s data, they’re also preparing for the next big step in Martian exploration – the Mars 2020 probe. It’s scheduled to land in February 2021.

The Mars 2020 rover will test new technology to benefit future robotic and human exploration of Mars. And, just like Curiosity, it will run on nuclear power.


Bone Scanning and Osteoperosis

Here’s a little-known fact: Fractures from osteoporosis are more common than heart attack, stroke and breast cancer combined. Radiologist Robert Bleakney says the issue is under-reported and under-recognized.scan

Dr. Bleakney specializes in musculoskeletal/ bone radiology at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto and is the head of musculoskeletal imaging at the Joint Department of medical Imaging (JDMI). He uses the technique to assess a bone’s mineral density in order to determine a patient’s fracture risk.

“Bone mineral density or mineralization tells us the strength of the bones,” he says. “You want a higher score. The higher the score, the more dense the bone.”

The scans are based on X rays, similar to a Chest X ray, but use a fraction of the radiation dose, equivalent to a few days of natural background radiation or a transatlantic flight. The patient receives two X-rays of varying energy, usually targeting the spine and the left hip. Those are the areas that best predict fracture risk. Using the scan results, Dr. Bleakney can determine whether a patient has a low, moderate or high risk for subsequent fractures.scan 2From there, doctors can look at appropriate treatment methods. For low-risk patients, lifestyle changes may be all that’s needed. High-risk patients may be offered medications that help strengthen their bones.

While anyone can suffer from the impacts of a fracture, women are often at an increased risk for fractures. Other risk factors include:

  • Being over 65
  • Early menopause
  • Family history of fractures, osteoporosis and past fragility fractures
  • Certain medications: Steroids have been known to decrease bone mineral density and increase fracture risk

You don’t need to  wait for your own scan to think about strengthening your bones and reducing fracture risk. Here are some useful tips:

  • Regular weight-bearing exercise helps stimulate bone growth. Running, walking and weight lifting are all good options.
  • Fall Prevention techniques by strengthening the muscles. This can include physiotherapy
  • Calcium and Vitamin D supplements

Dr. Bleakney says fractures often result in decreased mobility or even death. The economic impact cannot be ignored. According to the Public Health Agency of Canada, fractures cost Canadian tax payers over $2 billion dollars annually.

With an aging population, the matter is only certain to gain even more importance. According to Osteoporosis Canada, “Without BMD (bone mineral density) testing, 80% of patients with a history of fractures are not given osteoporosis therapies. Hundreds of thousands of Canadians needlessly fracture each year because their osteoporosis goes undiagnosed and untreated.”


WiN Canada – 12th Annual Conference

Women in Nuclear is a worldwide association of individuals, focusing on women, working in various fields of nuclear energy and radiation applications and has a vision of making the public, especially women, aware of the benefits of these applications and of the culture of safety that ensures protection of the public and the environment. In Canada, we have over 1,400 members in all disciplines within the nuclear industry.

I am pleased to announce that the 12th annual WiN Conference is November 8-10, 2015.  The theme of the conference is Linking the Nuclear Family: Past, Present & Future. Delegates will gain a sense of where the industry began, where it is headed and how to flourish in a change environment to better position themselves for future success.

WiNCanadaThe conference takes place on November 8, 9 & 10, 2015.

Sunday, November 8: Program includes social and networking events along with the opening reception at 7:00 pm at the Hilton Garden Inn, Ajax Ontario.

Monday, November 9: Full Day Conference,

  • WiN-Canada AGM
  • Speakers Include:  Angela Mondu – President of ICE Leadership and Author of ‘Hit the Ground Leading’, Jeremy Whitlock – CNA, Dr. Audrey Li – Lakeridge Health, and many others.
  • Panel Discussion:  Communicating the Nuclear Brand
  • Breakout Sessions:  Leadership, Industry Best practices, Science & Technology
  • Door Prizes
  • Networking Dinner and interactive entertainment with a unique beat!

Tuesday, November 10:  Participants will also have the opportunity to sign-up for Technical Tours at Darlington Nuclear Energy Complex (DEC) Reactor Mock-Up and Darlington Learning Center (DLC) Simulator, GE-Hitachi and Rolls-Royce, the Operator Training Facility and Pickering Nuclear In-Station, the Port Hope Area Initiative (PHAI), the University of Ontario Institute of Technology (UOIT) Energy Research Centre Labs and Automotive Centre of Excellence (ACE).

WiN (Women in Nuclear) is a world-wide association of women working professionally in various fields of nuclear energy and radiation applications.  WiN-Canada was formed in early 2004 and has been working to support the objectives of WiN-Global and emphasize and support the role that women can and do have in addressing the general public’s concerns about nuclear energy and the application of radiation and nuclear technology. WiN-Canada also works to provide an opportunity for women to succeed in the industry through initiatives such as mentoring, networking, and personal development opportunities.

WiN-Canada Conference Registration Ends Soon!

Don’t miss your chance to register at



How OPG Stores Nuclear Waste Today

When people visit nuclear power plants, they’re often amazed to see nuclear workers standing right beside containers of used nuclear fuel.

“You can safely stand next to them, knowing the radiation is safely contained,” says Val Bevacqua. He is in charge of used-fuel storage for Ontario Power Generation (OPG), which owns all the Ontario reactors that generate electricity.

What makes them safe? They’re made of concrete more than half a metre thick and lined with steel plate. Each of these large, white bins stands about four metres high and weighs 60 tonnes – empty.

Once the spent fuel goes in, skilled workers weld the container shut, vacuum-dry the interior, pump it full with inert helium, and test rigorously for leaks.

Used fuel is very hot and radioactive. A robot removes the fuel bundles from the reactor and places them in bays that look like swimming pools. Despite the strong radiation, Val says, “just a few metres of water can provide a remarkable protective shield for workers and environment from the radiation.”

After about 10 years, the fuel bundles cool and lose most of their radioactivity. Then, nuclear workers use remote tools to place the fuel in the dry storage containers, which are kept on-site.


OPG employees are the operation’s core strength. They are all highly trained, and kept safe by radiation-protection equipment and dosimeters.

OPG’s used-fuel storage faces regular inspections by regulators, and the inspectors also make surprise visits. The inspectors track every fuel bundle. And they ensure that the storage containers haven’t been tampered with.

Onsite storage has worked well. The containers are safe and secure. But the sites have to be managed and guarded, and the containers won’t last forever. Eventually, Canada intends to store all used fuel underground, at a site with the right geology and a willing host.

Communities that have shown interest in hosting the permanent site are learning more through OPG. “We’re part of the community, and we host a lot of tours,” says Val.

“Tours are an opportunity for communities to see for themselves what is involved in the safe handling of nuclear fuel and how these hazards can be safely handled without risk to the workers, the public, or the environment.”


Where Will Canada’s Spent Fuel Go?

The plan to store nuclear waste underground at a site near Kincardine, Ontario is only for Canada’s low- and intermediate-level waste. It does not include spent fuel – the uranium that has been used in nuclear reactors.

Spent fuel is much more radioactive, and has to be handled with greater care. So, a separate plan is underway to store all of Canada’s spent fuel permanently underground, in a deep geological repository, or DGR.

Science and the community

Spent fuel storage containers at Bruce Nuclear Generating Station
Spent fuel storage containers at Bruce Nuclear Generating Station

Up to 10,000 years will pass before the radioactivity of spent fuel drops below the radioactivity of natural uranium in the ground. So, storage needs careful planning. Fortunately, Canada has many rock formations that have not moved for millions of years. Many parts of Canada also have types of rock, such as granite, that stop radioactive material from seeping through.

Those are scientific reasons for choosing a DGR location. But people will also live and work around the site. It’s essential for those people to understand and accept what is involved. In 2002, the federal government created the Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO) to find a DGR site and build it.

Under the laws governing the NWMO, getting approval for the site means proving that the DGR project is scientifically sound and accepted by the host community.


The process for selecting a spent-fuel storage site started in 2010. It will take about 10 years to finish. It began with the NWMO providing public information about the process. Then, 21 communities came forward to express interest. The NWMO is assessing those communities, but not all of them have the right geology or enough community support. So, the list has been narrowed to nine communities, all in Ontario.


The NMWO will also consult with nearby communities, and study possible effects of the DGR. The NMWO will then ask communities still on the list to formally decide on whether they agree to host a DGR. The preferred community will then sign an agreement with the NWMO. The agreement will need approval from the federal government.

After the agreement

With a host site selected, the NWMO will first build a “demonstration facility,” then build the DGR itself. Canada will have a place to store its spent fuel permanently. The NWMO will continue to talk with Canadians about the DGR and keep local communities involved.