Approval of engineering and business case study for new nuclear research reactor could signal political appetite for NRU replacement

Guest Contributor
December 21, 2009

The fate of Canada's nuclear industry could be determined in the next Budget when the government decides whether to fund a detailed business case and feasibility study for a new multi-purpose research reactor. A request for approximately $10 million is being made to fund the study, which could pave the way for the far more expensive decision to replace the aging National Research Universal Reactor (NRU) at the Chalk River ON complex with a reactor that can serve several research functions and their respective communities and industrial sectors.

The decision is inextricably tied to the government's May/09 move to restructure Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd (AECL), separating the agency's CANDU reactor business from the rest of the Chalk River Laboratories, which includes the National Research Council's Canadian Neutron Beam Centre.

On December 17, the government formally announced it was inviting investors to submit proposals for AECL's commercial CANDU Reactor Division. Ottawa's position on AECL's Research and Technology Division remains unclear. The statement only said that its top priority was to restart the NRU "as quickly as possible", adding that "the Government will make a decision at a later date on the best management structure for that division". However, a Natural Resources Canada (NRCan) review released earlier this year said that the Chalk River Labs "would benefit from a strong partner to drive innovation and renewal" and that "due consideration should be given to a government-owned/company operated approach".

Last year, the Canadian Institute for Neutron Scattering (CINS) issued Planning to 2050 for Materials Research with Neutron Beams in Canada, arguing for an urgent decision on replacing the NRU with a new machine that serves multiple needs. This fall, a task force comprised of current and former employees of Chalk River Laboratories released a report arguing for a new Chalk River National Laboratory (CRNL) serving industrial, academic and government R&D programs. It was closely followed by the Report of the Expert Review Panel on Medical Isotope Production, presented to the minister of Natural Resources Canada, Lisa Raitt. It endorsed the multi-purpose reactor option over other options including the highly touted photo fission proposal/accelerator backed by TRIUMF (R$, November 30/08 & October 8/09).

The debate and flurry of reports come at a time when the NRU — Canada's existing research reactor — remains idle, months after it was shut down due to a heavy water leak. It will be 10 months between the time of the shutdown in May/09 and the NRU's planned return to service in March/10. While the recent reports all agree on what Canada requires for the long term, the lobbying effort has been largely uncoordinated.

"If you ever wanted to shoot a grade-B science fiction movie, the NRU is the place to do it. It's 52 years old and looking pretty long in the tooth."

Gordon Tapp

AECL research technologist

Even the task force report by the Chalk River Employees Task Force (CREATE) — which was convened at the urging of Chalk River-area Conservative MP Cheryl Gallant — does not appear to have high-level government support. Gallant contacted prime minister Stephen Harper to express the concerns of her constituents over the NRU's fate and was advised that she should encourage the formation of a task force, which assembled and reported in a period of about three months.

"How intently the government is listening to these reports, we've had no indication at all … I'm not convinced that they are completely sold (on the need for a new reactor) partially because of the difficult economic climate," says Gordon Tapp, a long-time AECL research technologist, president of the Chalk River Technicians and Technologists Union and head of the CREATE working group. "We need a comprehensive approach to nuclear or we will lose it. A line item in the Budget is what we're looking for."

CREATE Recommendations

  • Proceed with restructuring of AECL into two separate entities;
  • Announce adoption of CRNL concept for future mission and mandate of Chalk River Laboratories;
  • Initiate detailed planning of CRNL's governance and business model;
  • Initiate detailed planning of a new multi-purpose research reactor for research and isotope production;
  • Identify a federal agency with broad science and industry experience to lead planning and assist in the transformation of existing facility into CRNL

CREATE's CRNL proposal comes with a fairly hefty price tag although it's in line with research reactors in other countries. With an employment base of 2,700 to run the whole site (900 R&D staff plus a full range of support staff), the CRNL would require an annual operating budget of $600 million. Approximately $350 million or 60% of the operating cost would be covered by federal funding, with the remainder derived from user fees and contracts including AECL for continuing work on the CANDU program.

"Although there are significant uncertainties, CREATE is confident that income potential is well able to cover 40% of the estimated operating budget for CRNL," states the CREATE report. "The new outward focus (of the reactor) will result in collaborations with potential partners that have been traditionally excluded in the past."

"This is the best opportunity we're ever likely to be handed. If they (government) don't decide there will be no reason to continue."

Dr Dominic Ryan, president, Canadian Institute for Neutron Scattering

While the CRNL would be a replacement to the NRU, it will have enhanced capabilities, the most important being the ability to generate cold neutrons. By going beyond the scope of energy and into sectors with a strong industry component, the CREATE report suggests that the CRNL may be more appropriate within Industry Canada than its traditional home at NRCan.

CREATE is following up its report with an email campaign directed towards MPs from all parties, with a particular emphasis on area MPs.

"We don't want this to be partisan although we are in a Conservative riding … We'd like to follow the US attitude which is to have a policy for nuclear set aside from the politics of the day," says Tapp. "With our experience at NRU, we have some time to live with this (existing reactor) and plan for the next generation of researchers and nuclear reactors. This is the time to do this."

In addition to serving AECL, industry and the academic materials research communities, the CRNL is also intended to maintain the supply of medical isotopes currently provided by the NRU. Although the government has stated that it would like to get out of the business of isotope production, at least one leading researcher contends that the decision is more about ending the subsidization of medical isotope production on behalf of a private sector entity (MDS Nordion) which sells most of the output to US customers at a significant profit.

"It is clear that the government has a role to play in providing infrastructure for science and technology, but it is not clear that the Government of Canada should be in the business of manufacturing medical isotopes for delivery below cost to a worldwide commercial enterprise," CINS president Dr Dominic Ryan told the House of Commons Standing Committee on Natural Resources. "As we understand it, it is this form of the isotope business that the government is trying to get out of — and who would argue with that."

Ryan contends that the current fiscal, economic and political environment provides an ideal opportunity to request funding for a new multi-purpose reactor. The proposed machine would bring the Chalk River facility back to the functions it served prior to a dramatic narrowing of focus in the mid-1990s (R$, March 13, 1996 & February 5, 1997).

"If you go back 50 years, NRU was a multi-purpose reactor but that vision was lost in the 1990s. The government shed everything but the CANDU business ... The MAPLE reactor mistake was part of that re-focusing," says Ryan. "The NRU can't be dragged on indefinitely. It will take eight to 10 years to build a new reactor from a standing start ."

Ryan says a a major issue complicating the debate over a new reactor is the lack of overarching strategy for nuclear research and its potential contributions to the Canadian S&T environment

"The bigger problem is there's no real vision for major science funding in Canada. Each project is thought of in isolation. We need an overriding goal," he says.


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