When you look at packed audience halls at a nuclear industry convention, you know there is activity in the industry. Last week’s Canadian Nuclear Association annual conference and trade show was very well attended, and not just by the Ontario nuclear utilities, Ontario Power Generation and Bruce Power, whose billion dollar annual revenues make them the two big moneymakers in the Canadian industry. This year’s confab included players interested in other parts of the industry. Many of those not directly involved in making electricity in Ontario or New Brunswick were there because they hope to play a role in running the country’s nuclear laboratories. The biggest and most well-known of these is at Chalk River.
Though several labs in Canada saw major research efforts in the early days of the nuclear age, the Chalk River lab is where the Canadian nuclear industry really originated. The first self-sustained critical fission chain reaction outside the United States took place there, in a reactor called the ZEEP (for Zero Energy Experimental Pile). Research done with ZEEP paved the way for building the National Research Experimental (NRX) reactor, which begat the famous National Research Universal (NRU) reactor, which even today—nearly fifty-seven years after it first started up—makes most of the world’s most-used medical diagnostic radioisotope, technetium-99.
Chalk River’s future is somewhat uncertain. Much hangs on the ability of the federal government, which owns it, to entice private sector organizations to help operate it. That involves agreeing on a long-term vision and then putting up money to realize the vision. How much should the Canadian government put up, and how much should the private sector partner or partners put up? And what would the money pay for?
All this is being hashed out as I write this. It will be interesting to see how it develops. But the presence of so many interested prospective partners at the CNA conference last week signals that Chalk River is a very valuable facility.
The biggest financial issue is what to do with the NRU, which as I mentioned has been in service for nearly fifty-seven years. NRU’s current operating license expires in 2016. What happens then? Chalk River operators say it could continue to operate until 2021, i.e. for another five years. But eventually it will come out of service. Should it be replaced with a new multi-purpose research reactor?
Canada’s R&D future is just around the corner.