Small Science, Big Discoveries

Many major scientific discoveries begin with observation of and interaction with materials at the smallest levels. Read on to learn how research at the atomic level impacts our daily lives in the areas of health care, agriculture, transportation, energy and beyond.

A Canadian icon celebrates an anniversary: 60 years of scientific discovery at the NRU

On November 3, 2017 the National Research Universal (NRU) research reactor, one of Canada’s most productive and impactful science facilities will reach the unprecedented milestone of 60 years in operation.

Based around the Chalk River Laboratories (CRL), in a quiet corner of the province of Ontario adjacent to the Ottawa River, the team at Atomic Energy of Canada (now Canadian Nuclear Laboratories (CNL)) has had made a real difference in the lives of people across Canada and around the globe. Serving as the cornerstone for much of that research for that past 60 years is the NRU reactor. Though designed in the nuclear ‘hey days’ of the 1940’s and early 50’s, the low-temperature, low pressure, 135 MWth (originally 200 MWth) NRU enabled great advances across a wide swath of globally important industrial sectors.

NRU was used to prove out many concepts that later appeared in the Canada Deuterium Uranium (CANDU) heavy-water reactor design; this marvel in 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, nuclear technology, proven in NRU, has powered the lives of millions while avoiding billions of tons of greenhouse gas emissions.

NRU and the people at CRL spawned 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, truth be told, 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 (SA) 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 provided the neutron source to conduct research across a wide spectrum of sciences, both applied and basic. Neutrons from NRU have been used to examine pieces of space shuttles to answer key questions on materials performance; they have shined new light into planes, trains and automobiles (pun intended) in the ongoing search for lighter, stronger and higher performance materials and manufacturing techniques; they have helped us answer key questions around human health and biological function; helped us discover new innovative approaches to drug delivery; and examined root systems to help address global food production issues as a result of climate change.

NRU has indeed made a difference in the world, and on the 60th anniversary of its first start-up, it is an opportunity to pause, reflect and celebrate.

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Small town, big impact: How Canada’s largest federal laboratory, tucked away in rural Ontario has impacted millions around the globe

On November 3, the National Research Universal (NRU) research reactor, one of the Canada’s most productive and impactful science facilities, celebrated the unprecedented milestone of 60 years in operation.

Chalk River

The NRU which is located at the Chalk River campus of Canadian Nuclear Laboratories, near the town of Deep River, has delivered major benefits to the health of people around the world, and has enabled many scientific achievements since it began operating in 1957. (For example it helped launch a new branch of physics, neutron scattering, which was recognized with a Nobel Prize.)

Over its life, NRU has produced medical materials used in well over half a billion patient treatments. Those have helped people in 80 countries around the world.

How were all those patients helped? Well, when NRU is operating, the nuclear fission produces trillions of neutrons, which can be used to transform atoms into radioactive isotopes. Those isotopes emit energy in the form of gamma radiation, and that energy has two important uses, improving the health of people across the globe.

One Canadian medical innovation made possible by NRU was the use of gamma rays from an isotope of cobalt to destroy cancerous tumours. A technique first developed in Canada in the 1950’s, this technology is still in use today. Each year 16 million people, many in the developing world, receive life-saving cancer treatment from radioactive cobalt produced in NRU.

Another significant isotope supplied to the world from NRU for many years is technetium which emits a lower energy gamma ray that can be used to create an image of a patient. Approximately 85% of diagnostic imaging procedures in nuclear medicine use this isotope, and many hundreds of millions of patients have benefited from that technology.

NRU was the subject of a recent TEDx talk at Algonquin College in Ottawa this fall, where the NRU’s Director of Operations, Alastair McIvor made the case for the NRU being Canada’s most productive science facility. Learn more by following the links below‎ to both the video and transcript.

How is a nuclear reactor used for science? | Alastair McIvor | TEDxOttawa


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