Chalk River workers propose own future

02 December 2009

Workers at Canada's Chalk River Laboratories (CRL), home of the beleaguered National Research Universal (NRU) research reactor, are awaiting a response from the country's natural resources minister on their own proposal for the future of the facility in the restructuring of Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd (AECL).


Chalk River Laboratory (AECL)
Chalk River Laboratory (Image: AECL)
The Chalk River Employees Ad hoc Taskforce (CREAT) - a "grass-roots, non-partisan group of volunteers that includes current and former employees at CRL" - submitted a report to Natural Resources Canada (NRCan) on 20 October. The move follows the government's announcement in May to restructure AECL, possibly into two parts: one part focussing on Candu reactor technology and the other to run the Chalk River Laboratories. AECL is supported to a certain extent by government funds. Canada's 2009 budget included a sum of C$351 million ($315 million) for AECL to develop the ACR-1000 design and maintain operations at Chalk River, where the NRU research reactor produces a major portion of the world's isotopes for nuclear medicine.


The announcement to restructure AECL followed a review that began in November 2007 and concluded that AECL's "current mandate and structure limit the corporation's success and development." CREAT said that "in response to the restructuring of AECL and to the need for a new, multi-purpose research reactor, [it] proposes a vision for the future mission of Chalk River as a national laboratory that will serve Canada." The proposed Chalk River National Laboratory (CRNL) "will be Canada's premier laboratory for nuclear and related science." It would be comparable with the Oak Ridge National Laboratory and Idaho National Laboratory in the USA and the Paul Scherrer Institute in Switzerland, it said.


The report added, "It will be a resource for researchers from across a broad spectrum, from fundamental sciences to industrial applications, rather than being restricted to research and development (R&D) that is mainly focused on supporting Candu nuclear power reactors, as is the case today."


Under CREAT's proposal, "The new mission of CRNL will be very outward looking, partnering and impacting at all levels of Canadian society. That outward focus includes several new functions: leading diverse research programs beyond nuclear energy; partnering broadly with universities, industries, and government; commercializing knowledge; providing a training ground for Canada's future generation of research scientists and engineers; and fostering a science and technology (S&T) culture in Canada." CREAT added, "By serving as a unique, major resource for science and industry, CRNL will deliver enduring value for Canada."


The report says, "Although there are many R&D areas for CRNL to pursue, nuclear energy R&D will remain a key area. CRNL will be especially important to re-establish Canada's international leadership position in nuclear R&D."


"The opportunity has arrived to begin transitioning CRL into CRNL by establishing a future direction, governance and business model, in consultation with the potential partners and clients for the coming decades. In parallel, detailed planning for a new multi-purpose reactor for research and isotope production that can take over and expand the functions of the aging NRU reactor over the long term is needed," it added.


According to a report in The Globe & Mail, a panel convened to study solutions to Canada's isotope production submitted its report to natural resources minister Lisa Raitt on 30 November. She is expected to release the report "in the coming days."


"If the government decides in their wisdom that the Candu technology no longer represents something the Canadian government wants to invest in ... we don't want to be strapped to that," said Gordon Tapp, president of Chalk River Technicians and Technologists. He added, "Once the Candu sunset starts, we don't want to go down with the ship. We want to stand alone and say we can do a lot more than Candu."