Success Stories

CNL to play a key role in fuelling deep space exploration

People may soon be able to look to the stars and take pride knowing that Canada played a key role in future space exploration. Recently, Ontario Power Generation (OPG) and its venture arm, Canadian Nuclear Partners, announced their participation in a project to produce isotopes in support of deep space exploration; a project that relies on CNL to play an important role.

So, let’s get into the details and the different players in this initiative. To begin, Pacific Northwest National Laboratories (PNNL), located in Washington State, has developed and is patenting a new process to convert neptunium (Np-237), the element next to Plutonium (Pu) on the periodic table, to the radioactive isotope Pu-238. (Plutonium 238 is an isotope of plutonium; however, Pu 238 cannot sustain a nuclear reaction and therefore cannot be used as a fuel in a nuclear reactor or in a nuclear weapon.) The proposal would have Np-237 targets irradiated in the Darlington reactor core during normal fueling operation to convert the Np-237 to Pu-238. Given their size, neutron energy spectrum, and on-line fueling capability, CANDU reactors align very well with this production process. OPG has announced that this work would be conducted at the Darlington station. 

So, the obvious question is how does CNL fit in this picture? Again, we benefit from the integrated nature of our site and our work, bring a number of key capabilities to bear on this project. We have the necessary capabilities in fuel work, in post-irradiation examination and materials handling, in security, in radiation protection, RAM transport… and, decades of experience to back it up. In simple terms, CNL would be responsible for the fabrication of target bundles; extraction of the Pu-238 product from the targets and recycling of Np-237 target materials,; and, encapsulation of the Pu-238 product. 

“CNL staff should take a lot of pride in the fact that we are key partners in a project such as this,” says Wayne TerMarsch, Acting Vice-President, Business Development and Commercial Ventures. “The broad range of skills and capabilities we are able to bring to the market are unique. In particular our decades of experience in isotopes. CNL’s participation and leadership on such a high power international team is testament to the real strength of teamwork and collaboration between branches and departments on site.” 

The use of Pu-238 in space exploration is not a new concept. Many deep space exploration projects are powered by plutonium. These include the Voyager 1 and 2 (both launched in 1977 and now in interstellar space); the Curiosity Rover currently on Mars; and the Mars 2020 Rover. Pu-238 emits steady heat due to its natural radioactive decay. The heat generated decreases slowly in a highly predictable manner and can be harnessed into electric energy onboard a spaceship. In addition, the heat keeps scientific instruments warm enough to function in space. (If any of you watched Matt Damon in the movie “The Martian” you would have seen this technology in action, serving both these purposes.) 

“This is a very exciting project,” said Jeff Lyash, President and CEO of OPG. “No pursuit pushes the boundaries of our scientific and technical limits like space travel. We are proud to have Ontario play a part, however small, in this most noble of human endeavours. This project is just another example of the broad economic and societal benefits of nuclear power. It provides clean, low cost power, it helps in the medical world and if successful can be a part of the next generation of space travel,” he added. 

It is early days yet, and OPG hopes to have the first production cycle in 2020. This opportunity is still subject to regulatory and licensing processes. 

This opportunity relies on a cross organizational, multi-disciplinary team comprised of members from Fuel Development, Applied Physics, Thermalhydraulics, Analytical Chemistry, Reactor Chemistry and Corrosion, Mechanical Equipment Development, Systems Operations Research, NRU Operations, and Operations Safety and Licensing, Materials and Logistics, Nuclear Materials Management and Business Development and Commercial Ventures.