ARCHIVED - Industry Hungry for Neutrons

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July 07, 2007— Ottawa, Ontario

At the dawn of the nuclear age, NRC scientists envisioned an R&D tool that could tap into the enormous potential of nuclear energy. This year, the National Research Universal (NRU) reactor in Chalk River, Ontario, celebrates 50 years of achievements – including a Nobel Prize – while continuing to fuel advances in everything from green energy to advanced materials to cancer treatment.

Built in 1957, NRU was designed as a multipurpose research facility rather than to generate steam or electricity. Canada's $5 billion nuclear energy industry was built on the fundamental knowledge gathered in the test facilities at NRU, which today is owned and operated by NRC's largest spin-off, Atomic Energy of Canada Limited (AECL). The facility continues to test nuclear fuels and materials for the fleet of CANDU nuclear power stations that supply one-sixth of Canada's electricity and employ 30,000 Canadians.

NRC scientist Dr. Ron Rogge explains to post-doctoral researcher Roxana Hutanu how, as part of the Challenger accident investigation, neutrons were used to measure the stress inside this component from NASA's space shuttle.
NRC scientist Dr. Ron Rogge explains to post-doctoral researcher Roxana Hutanu how, as part of the Challenger accident investigation, neutrons were used to measure the stress inside this component from NASA's space shuttle.

Cancer treatment for millions: one of the earliest innovations from NRC's work at Chalk River was nuclear medicine, and today, Canada has the largest medical isotope industry in the world. More than 16 million people in 80 countries are treated for cancer each year using medical isotopes produced at NRU, and another 5 million are diagnosed with CT scans and other techniques.

"For well over 40 years, the test facilities inside NRU have allowed the industry to constantly improve the safety and performance of its technology," says Robert Speranzini, General Manager of CANDU Technology Development at AECL. "That has brought benefits to all Canadians – in domestic electricity free from greenhouse gases, and in international trade worth billions of dollars."

NRU is also an important research tool for understanding the true nature of matter. The neutrons produced in the reactor can penetrate deep within materials – from steel to concrete to ice – to reveal their structure at the atomic scale. This technique – called neutron scattering – helps industry to answer questions that can't be addressed in any other way.

"For example, using neutron scattering, you can look at a particular point within a car engine to see whether it's experiencing strain or not," says Ian Anderson, director of neutron science at the Spallation Neutron Source in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. "No other technique can do that – not X-rays, not anything."

NRC researcher Dr. Bertram Brockhouse won a Nobel Prize for his pioneering work in neutron scattering at NRU. Today, those same principles are used by NRC's research presence at the facility – the Canadian Neutron Beam Centre (NRC-CNBC) – to help industry develop safer and stronger components for applications such as railroad tracks, car engines and aircraft. NRC-CNBC's presence at NRU attracts academic and industrial clients from around the world, all of whom are welcome to use the facility. "This open approach creates opportunities for Canadian researchers to use facilities in other countries," says Anderson. "It really helps scientific exchange."

Today, NRU is a vibrant facility that remains world class a half century after its construction. Canada's investment has reaped dividends in launching new industries, enabling groundbreaking research, and producing medical products that touch the lives of millions of people in 80 countries around the world.


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National Research Council of Canada
613-991-1431
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