ARCHIVED - NRC's Diamond in the Rough

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May 06, 2006— Ottawa, Ontario

Tucked Away in the Woods is a Research Treasure Drawing International Attention

Nearly every researcher encounters hurdles on the road to a scientific breakthrough. For some, the obstacle preventing them from exclaiming "eureka" is finding a way to test their hypothesis in conditions that don't exist anywhere in nature.

The Chalk River NRU reactor facility.

In an unlikely place, nestled in the Ottawa Valley at the Chalk River Laboratories, scientists are finding the ideal conditions to pursue scientific breakthroughs. Canadian and international researchers alike are eager to have NRC help them test their research in unique facilities in Chalk River, Ontario, and in turn, make substantial contributions to Canada's science, technology, energy, health, construction and economic sectors.

Chalk River is the site where 1994 Nobel Prize winner, NRC's Bertram Brockhouse, laid the foundation for the field of neutron scattering. It is also here that one of Canada's most productive science facilities is located – the National Research Universal (NRU) reactor.

Unlike most nuclear reactors which were dedicated to energy or military applications, the NRU was designed solely for research and development – which keeps the facility buzzing with activity year round. The neutrons supplied by the NRU reactor can accommodate users from a diverse range of scientific, academic and industrial sectors; making the facility a hotbed for cutting-edge research.

Owned and operated by NRC's largest spin-off, Atomic Energy of Canada Limited, the NRU is a nuclear facility that provides scientists with opportunities to conduct research using neutron beams. Beyond its historical contributions – establishing Canada's first operational nuclear facility (1945) and spinning out AECL (1952) – NRC still has a key presence in Chalk River, the NRC Canadian Neutron Beam Centre (NRC-CNBC).

Everything is made out of something!

Since neutrons are an excellent probe of materials of all kinds, the NRU is ideal for neutron-based materials research. Neutron scattering is a powerful technique that is used to explore the structure of matter at the atomic scale.

A spectrometre at the NRU reactor.

NRC-CNBC manages the neutron scattering spectrometers in Chalk River. In addition to conducting NRC research in this nuclear reactor, employees spend three-quarters of their time assisting other researchers from around the world. The NRC-CNBC staff conduct collaborative research and help visiting researchers set up neutron scattering experiments to uncover the true structure and behaviour of materials.

What kind of materials, you ask. Steel, aluminum, bio-membranes, ceramics, composites, minerals, glasses and ice, to name just a few. They study the effects of extreme temperatures (2000°C down to -272°C) and stresses on these materials. Research samples have included debris from the Space Shuttle Challenger, pieces of concrete roadways damaged by ice, engine turbines blades, and much more.

This research provides valuable insight for industries seeking to develop better products for many sectors, including aerospace, automotive, construction, computing and energy. In fact, the variety of research conducted using NRC spectrometers is so vast that experiments carried out at this facility have included almost every stable isotope in the periodic table of the elements!

A testament to Canadian expertise and ingenuity, NRU is such a versatile reactor that it remains world-class half a century after its construction. NRC-CNBC researchers are even conducting experiments on biomaterials to better understand health and human membranes. Their recent studies have ranged from hydration to cholesterol issues.

Speaking of health...

Worldwide, researchers are working around the clock in laboratories to help diagnose patients and develop cancer treatments. Each year, medical isotopes produced at the NRU are used to treat 16 million people in 80 countries (many in the developing world) and to provide 5 million people with medical image scans.

Inside view of the NRU reactor facility.

When it comes to medical isotopes, Canada is the world's largest producer and a major exporter. Chalk River's NRU produces eighty-five percent of the world's Cobalt-60 radiation therapies and two-thirds of the global supply of Technetium-99, a major medical isotope used in patient imaging for cancer, heart disease and other illnesses. The Cobalt-60 innovation was developed in the 1950s by NRC scientists at Chalk River and doctors in London and Saskatoon.

Helping to build more efficient and safe nuclear power plants

The NRU reactor does not produce any electricity, but it is a major test bed for fuels and materials being developed for use in nuclear power stations. AECL researchers conduct safety tests on nuclear fuel pencils (part of fuel bundles at the core of a reactor) in Chalk River's Molten Fuel / Moderator Interaction experiment. A giant containment canister and specialized sensors let researchers measure what happens when they purposely mix molten metal and water. This research supports Canadian regulatory guidelines.

Neutron diffraction provides powerful material and engineering information about reactor components and fuels. This supports nuclear power advances. Nuclear power is important to Canada's energy mix, especially in terms of meeting growing energy demands while helping to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Unlike harmful emissions produced by burning coal, oil, gas; waste from nuclear production can be safely stored and closely monitored in a secure, relatively small place.

NRC's Nuclear Milestones

  • 1940 – 1942: Using carbon and uranium powder, NRC's Dr. George Laurence built Canada's first nuclear reactor prototype in his lab at 100 Sussex Drive.
  • Mid-1940s: NRC led the Canadian-British nuclear research war effort that involved setting up the Montreal and Chalk River Laboratories
  • 5 September 1945: ZEEP, a 10-Watt nuclear reactor, the first-ever reactor outside of the United States, became operational. Incredibly, only 14 months elapsed between the site identification (farm fields next to the Ottawa River, two hours northwest of the nation's capital), the creation of two sites (Chalk River for the lab and Deep River for the thousands of labourers) and the successful start up of the reactor.
  • 2 July 1947: Based on knowledge from the ZEEP project, Canada astounded the world by bringing online NRX, a 20-Million Watt nuclear reactor, the most powerful in the world at that time.
  • 1949: NRC received two Canadian requests for radioactive cobalt to be used in cancer therapies. By the fall of 1951, medical-use Cobalt-60 was successfully produced in the NRX reactor and used to treat clinical patients' cancerous tumours in London, Ontario and in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.
  • 1952: NRC and the Government of Canada spun out Atomic Energy of Canada Limited (AECL) as a crown corporation.
  • 3 November 1957: AECL's 200-million Watt (200 MegaWatt) reactor, NRU, became operational.
  • 1994: NRC's Dr. Bertram Brockhouse received a Nobel Prize in physics for his pioneering contributions to the development of neutron scattering techniques for studies of condensed matter. He was a member of the NRC atomic energy research division at Chalk River (1950 – 1952) and he worked at NRC's Ottawa labs (1944 – 1947).

Want to learn more?

Visit the NRC Canadian Neutron Beam Centre (NRC-CNBC) Web site or read some of the great Canadian achievements at the Chalk River Laboratories below:

Enquiries: Media relations
National Research Council of Canada

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