More Glory Days for Chalk River?

For reasons that don’t matter now I was prompted to think about what will happen to the Chalk River Laboratories (CRL) while on a cruise ship passing Devil’s Island.  Unlike that place I have fond memories of CRL.

When I arrived in 1968 CRL was still in its Glory Days.  Many excellent scientific programs continued notably at the NRU reactor and much engineering R&D was done in support of the newly hatched CANDU reactor concept. CRL scientists and engineers were very active in the governance of Canada’s learned societies and were prominent at national and international conferences. CRL was recognized as an incubator of highly qualified personnel and many left to become university faculty.

At that time W.B. Lewis, the father of the CANDU reactor, was promoting the ING project at CRL. ING was to be a giant accelerator producing the large neutron flux necessary to make fissile fuel to top up the thermal breeder capabilities of CANDU. The idea was that ING supporting a fleet of CANDU’s would eliminate the possibility that running out of the then known uranium resources would thwart the great expansion of nuclear power envisaged by Lewis and many others. ING was cancelled by Pierre Trudeau when he came to power that same year. It is arguable whether ING could ever have been made to work but in retrospect the cancellation of ING took away the last future vision for CRL.

When I left in 1996 the decline of CRL was reaching its climax in a process of decay that had started in the mid 1960’s. The steady erosion over the foregoing years culminated in the cancellation or transfer of the best scientific programs under the government program review process of that era.  A dismal succession of weak and ineffectual leaders tried to preserve the labs through dubious commercialization  schemes and strived to eliminate “curiosity oriented research” because they thought it was what the government wanted them to do. The problem was that most of the management simply didn’t understand how the Ottawa bureaucracy worked and those who did understand didn’t stick around enough to make a difference.

Of course the CRL site cannot be closed.  We’ve made such a mess we couldn’t possibly leave it in its current state.   Decommissioning and cleanup activities will go on decades if not centuries and it remains the main site for Canada’s medical and industrial radioactive wastes.

Everyone (except maybe the federal government) has concluded that the only thing that will restore CRL to its former glory is a new world class research reactor to replace NRU.  National laboratories in other countries have thrived on excellent new facilities. The SNS at Oak Ridge, the NIF at Lawrence Livermore, and the Jules Horowitz reactor at Cadarache are recent examples of facilities that have given new purpose to their host national laboratories.

To sell a new reactor it must have a meaningful and nationally important R&D program. The NRU reactor closure scheduled for 2016 will mark the end of isotope production and associated R&D.   Neutron scattering would attract scientists in that field but it’s a relatively small community.  With the Advanced CANDU Reactor thankfully now cancelled there isn’t likely to be much in the way of reactor development going on with the exception of perhaps some EC6 fuel tests and a bit of thorium research.

My own assessment is there is unlikely to be any further significant development of the CANDU concept and more sales of CANDU offshore are improbable. I can’t see any use for a new reactor to support the refurbishment projects now the heart of our nuclear industry. In the last decade or so an increasing nuclear research capability has been developed in Canadian universities and recent events in Saskatchewan for instance show that this trend will continue.  Therefore, if you need people doing R&D at computer screens you don’t need to do it at CRL.  It’s not clear to me what could be done at a new research reactor to justify the large expense in building it.

As for management, some have suggested that a private company could better manage CRL along the same lines as the US national labs. I don’t see that hiring a private company to manage it would contribute much since the strategic vision needs to come from within the government.

My solution would be to return CRL to the National Research Council of Canada (NRCC) fold from which it emerged in its earliest days. I admire NRCC management for skillfully keeping their organization viable and at times thriving for what must now be getting on for a century. They have proven expert at navigating through the shoals of government bureaucracy and they understand the value of R&D and even know how to sell curiosity oriented research to the government. Moving CRL to NRCC is not such a radical solution. The neutron scattering group at CRL has been run by NRCC since the 1990’s and NRCC has even been promoting the need for a new research reactor.

I do hope solutions can be found because there is nothing I’d like to see more than return of CRL to its Glory Days.

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