How should Canada resolve the medical isotope crisis? A new report says we should build a new multi-purpose research reactor which can produce isotopes on the side. Though this is the most expensive of the options presented, the authors point out the impressive benefits a multi-purpose reactor would offer. The logic of this recommendation will, I hope, focus the collective Canadian mind. We are at a crossroads in our nuclear history. It’s time to fish or cut bait.
The report is by the Expert Review Panel on Medical Isotope Production, a panel struck by the Canadian federal government to provide advice on how to deal with the isotope-related embarrassments that have occurred since the end of 2007.
Implicit in the Panel’s recommendation that we build a new multi-purpose research reactor is the fact that Canada’s nuclear industry is about much more than just medical isotopes. It’s also about power reactors, the machines that generate thousands of megawatts of emission-free electricity and billions of dollars of revenue for their owners.
Few have mentioned it, but nuclear power reactors are the number-one technology for reducing the pollution emissions that have historically accompanied the electric power that has underpinned economic growth in every developed country on the planet. China and India, whose demand for electric power dwarfs that of Europe and North America and will keep rising for the foreseeable future, plan massive expansions of their nuclear power reactor fleets.
Nuclear reactors make electricity by heating water, which makes steam, whose pressure spins giant turbine generators. So far that has been almost the sole use of civilian nuclear energy. But the world is poised to see the advent of new kinds of nuclear reactors, whose heat can be used in more ways, for example to provide industrial process heat. See the World Nuclear Association’s excellent summary of these reactors.
One of the most important applications of industrial process heat will be to split water to make hydrogen—a substance that will play the central role in the new transportation economy (see article). Because nuclear energy is so concentrated—nuclear reactions release two to three million times more energy than chemical ones—the energy barrier that bonds hydrogen with oxygen in water can be relatively easily, and cheaply, overcome.
Equally important, nuclear-based water splitting is clean. Nuclear reactions produce none of the emissions associated with fossil-fuel combustion. And when you split water you produce only hydrogen and oxygen.
For these reasons, nuclear-based hydrogen will revolutionize industry and the economy in the best way: quietly. As I mentioned in “The Real Hydrogen Highway” gasoline made from low-carbon hydrogen might not be as as sexy as hydrogen in a fuel cell. But it is cheaper, more practical, and more effective in making car transportation clean.
Now, Canada is an energy superpower. A big part of what makes us so is our nuclear industry—which has made inroads into China, India, South Korea, Argentina, and Rumania. We fought to get into these markets, and our opponent in many cases was none other than the United States (see article). If we’re going to maintain and grow this hard-fought position as an energy superpower, we have to maintain and grow our nuclear industry.
That requires serious research and development, which in turn requires equipment—in the form of a strong multi-purpose research reactor.
So the Expert Panel has made a good recommendation. Yes, medical isotopes are important but so are CANDU reactors and their technological offspring. If we follow the recommendation, we have a great and prosperous future.