Okay, let’s go.” With three simple words in late August 1942, C D Howe, minister at Canada’s wartime Department of Munitions and Supply, famously gave the go-ahead for the creation of the Montreal Laboratory. Canada was thrust to the forefront in the global pursuit of nuclear science and technology – a position it has held ever since.

From its early beginnings in Montreal, Quebec, and later Chalk River, Ontario, Canadian scientists, researchers, tradespeople and engineers built what few other countries could: a domestic ‘Tier 1’ nuclear industry. Based around the Chalk River Laboratories, in the province of Ontario adjacent to the Ottawa River, the team at Atomic Energy of Canada (now Canadian Nuclear Laboratories or CNL) has made a real difference in the lives of people across Canada and around the globe. Serving as the cornerstone of that research for that past 60 years is the National Research Universal (NRU) reactor.

Though designed in the nuclear ‘heyday’ of the 1940s and early 1950s, the low- temperature, low pressure, 135MWt NRU enabled great advances across a swathe of globally important industrial sectors.

For example, NRU was used to prove many concepts that later appeared in the Canada Deuterium Uranium (Candu) heavy-water reactor design. This marvel of engineering has gone on to serve safely and reliably in countries around the globe. Notable among these concepts was on-power refuelling, a hallmark of the current Candu fleet and a feat first accomplished in NRU. As a clean energy source, it has powered the lives of millions while avoiding billions of tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions. In 2014, Ontario became the first jurisdiction in North America to completely phase out the use of coal-fired power plants, an accomplishment made possible by Candu. And it has spawned a thriving nuclear supply chain across the country, serving as a beacon that has inspired many generations of bright Canadian minds and skilled Canadian hands.

NRU and CRL helped launch a global medical radioisotope industry. While much of the spotlight today shines on the critical role this reactor played in the production of molybdenum-99, in fact NRU served to advance a number of radiopharmaceuticals including iodine-131, an isotope used mainly in therapy, imaging and diagnosis; iodine-125, used in prostate cancer treatment (brachytherapy), in-vitro diagnostic kits (radio immunoassays), bone densitometry devices and protein iodination; xenon-133, a medical diagnosis tool, especially for scanning lungs; high specific-activity cobalt-60, primarily used in cancer treatment applications; and most recently enabling production of yttrium-90, for treatment of liver cancer. Over the past 60 years of operation, this reactor has enabled medical treatments for well over 500 million patients globally.

NRU has also provided the neutron source to conduct research across a wide spectrum of sciences. It has been used to examine pieces of space shuttles to answer key questions on materials performance; to shine new light into planes, trains and automobiles in the ongoing search for lighter, stronger and higher performance materials and manufacturing techniques; and to help answer questions around human health and biological function, discover new innovative approaches to drug delivery and examine root systems to help address global food production issues as a result of climate change.

An accomplishment I am personally particularly proud of is that the NRU is finishing its service life in a condition as safe – or safer – than it has ever been. We continue to make improvements in how we operate, maintain and work with the facility. Although NRU is one of the oldest research reactors in the world, it remains in the top three for annual operating days (234 operating days in 2016/17) and it is still steadily improving mean time between trips and unplanned shutdowns. This is no small feat, and demonstrates clearly our commitment to safe operation and the pride that so many across CNL have in this venerable machine.

NRU has indeed made a difference in the world, and in November, the 60th anniversary of its first startup, is an opportunity to pause, reflect and celebrate. Congratulations and thank-you to the entire team that has made all of this possible: scientists, engineers, operators, researchers, office staff, and management.

Looking to the future

But however proud we may be of the accomplishments of the past, we must also prepare for the future. For many years, our team in Chalk River provided the support to get Canada’s domestic heavy water design deployed around the world. Our research capabilities, and operations and staff complement was arranged, in large part, to support that mission. We needed to expand our reach and scope. 

Over the past two years, CNL has been transformed. The first step was a shift in management model: the Chalk River and Whiteshell Laboratories, as well as a number of project sites across the country, are now being managed through a government-owned, contractor-operated management model, also known as a GoCo model. Taking the best practices and lessons learned through similar exercises in the USA and the UK, the GoCo model introduced new approaches, efficiencies and greater customer focus. In line with this, CNL refocused its strategy to be globally relevant, leverage existing expertise and grow the science mission. The result was a 10-year strategy that sets a vision for the Chalk River Laboratories and informs investment in its capabilities.

This strategy was not developed in isolation. It had input from global leaders in nuclear science, from Atomic Energy of Canada Limited (the site’s owner and CNL’s client), from current customers and others in the nuclear supply chain, from our local communities and stakeholders, and from our own staff. The long-term strategy identifies those areas where we feel we are uniquely equipped, and applies these strengths to what the world needs in nuclear. The strategy will change as our customers’ needs change and develop as our capabilities develop, but it was an important first step towards a new vision for CNL and the Chalk River campus.

This effort has led to the creation of seven initiatives: small modular reactors; reactor life extension; advanced fuels; alpha therapies; hydrogen; cyber security; and nuclear forensics, safeguards and detection.

To make these scientific aspirations a reality, it was apparent that the Chalk River site, which served Canada so well for so many years, was in need of a ‘ground up’ overhaul. With investment of $1.2 billion over ten years from the government of Canada, the campus is being revitalised, the infrastructure renewed and the capabilities updated to meet needs in nuclear science. CNL will transform the Chalk River site to become a modern national nuclear laboratory campus that:

  • houses a collaborative environment to foster innovation and interdisciplinary scientific research;
  • consolidates activities to improve efficiency and lower operating costs through a reduced footprint;
  • contains flexible, modern and sustainable facilities that are reconfigurable to meet changing needs as new research and business opportunities arise; and,
  • serves as the site for a community of the world’s best researchers.

We cut the ribbon on a new hydrogen laboratory in 2015; opened a world class materials science complex in 2016 and are only months away from commissioning a new tritium laboratory. Work is already under way on a new cornerstone facility, the Advanced Nuclear Materials Research Centre, which will house cutting-edge capabilities for handling and examination of irradiated fuels and materials.

We are seeing strong growth in the delivery of commercial work, and we are reaching into new markets in nuclear services. We will need the right personnel to build on this momentum.

CNL has established a human resources strategy that identifies workforce requirements and builds a roadmap to navigate these changes. CNL plans to hire nearly two hundred additional research staff over the next three years to accommodate the company’s anticipated growth in nuclear science and technology services. Longer term, CNL’s research staff is projected to grow by more than 20%.

Over the past two years we have looked very carefully at our capabilities, skill sets and people and identified those areas in which we are uniquely equipped to respond to global challenges in health, energy and climate change. We are growing our capabilities and our commercial customer base and revenues. The biggest challenge we face over the next few years will be to augment our research and development team, build the strength we need in new capability areas, and replace those who are planning to retire. There is real opportunity with CNL for new graduates and experienced researchers to delve into truly fascinating work, on what will be a brand new world-class campus.

Chalk River Laboratories has a track record of innovation and commercial success that spans more than seven decades. Building on the strengths of the past, energised by new investment and a shift in culture, I am confident that we are positioning the Chalk River campus for another seven decades of success.  

About the author: Mark Lesinski, President & CEO of Canadian Nuclear Laboratories