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NRU Reactor marks 60 years in operation

By Sean Chase, The Daily Observer

Sean Chase/Daily Observer
Scientists, technicians and employees joined municipal leaders Friday to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the National Research Universal reactor, the world's oldest operating nuclear reactor. The cornerstone of Canadian Nuclear Laboratories at Chalk River, the NRU will halt production of isotopes in March 2018.

Sean Chase/Daily Observer Scientists, technicians and employees joined municipal leaders Friday to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the National Research Universal reactor, the world's oldest operating nuclear reactor. The cornerstone of Canadian Nuclear Laboratories at Chalk River, the NRU will halt production of isotopes in March 2018.

 

CHALK RIVER – On Nov. 3, 1957 at 6:03 a.m., the world's oldest operating nuclear reactor went critical beginning a remarkable life as a generator of science and technology advancement.

Although its operational life will be ending in less than five months, the National Research Universal reactor continues to generate isotopes used to treat or diagnose over 20 million people in 80 countries every year. It is the neutron source for the National Research Council Canadian Neutron Beam Centre and is the test bed for Atomic Energy of Canada Limited (AECL) to develop fuels and materials for the CANDU reactor.

“We all know it as a grand old lady,” declared Canadian Nuclear Laboratories (CNL) president and CEO Mark Lesinski as he addressed some of the 500 men and women solely responsible for the day-to-day operations of the NRU adding this lady is not showing signs of aging. “This reactor is running better than it ever has. This has been a great run. Sixty years is extraordinary.”

Speaking of the NRU as if it were a child graduating from high school, CNL vice-president of operations Dave Cox expressed pride in not only reaching this milestone but in the long years and decades of dedicated from the scientists and technicians who've kept it running. He estimated that 500 million worldwide have benefited from the isotopes alone, while other significant advancements in research and development have been made.

“This reactor was designed in the day of slide rules and before computers,” said Cox. “There aren't many plants in the world that have operated as long as we have.”

Running 230 days a year, the NRU produces 75 per cent of the world's supply of Cobalt-60 which is used in radiation therapy machines that treat cancer in 15 million patients in 80 countries each year. It also produces xenon-133, iodine-131 and iodine-125, which are used in a variety of diagnostic and therapeutic applications. It also serves as Canada's national facility for neutron scattering, the technique where a beam of neutrons shines through a sample of material allowing scientists to determine many details about the crystal structure and movements of the atoms within the sample. In 1958, the NRU became the first reactor in the world to change fuel rods while in operation.

For the employees who tend it to this facility, they are of one mind that the NRU reactor has far exceeded expectations set out back when it was designed in 1949 and has added significantly to science, medicine, technology and industry on a global scale. Although it was originally scheduled to shut down in October 2016, the federal government has extended its life until March 31, 2018 when shut-down and decommissioning procedures, which will take years to fully complete, will commence.

“The scientific achievement is nothing short of remarkable,” said Shannon Quinn, AECL vice-president of science, technology and commercial. “It is bringing value to Canada and will continue to do so until March 31.”

CNL is undergoing major changes over the next few years as new facilities replace aging building and labs that date back to the 1940s and 1950s. The $120 million Harriet Brooks building is commissioning its laboratories, while the groundwork is being prepared for the construction of a new administration building set for construction in 2019. Designs are also being drawn up for an advanced nuclear material research centre.

SChase@postmedia.com