Success Stories

Celebrating six decades of science, and preparing for many more

Based around the Chalk River Laboratories, in a quiet corner of the province of Ontario adjacent to the Ottawa River, the research delivered by the team at Atomic Energy of Canada Limited (now Canadian Nuclear Laboratories (CNL)) has made a real difference in the lives of people across Canada and around the globe. Serving as the cornerstone of that research for the past 60 years is the National Research Universal, or NRU reactor.

Though designed in the nuclear ‘hey days’ of the 1940s and early 50’s, the low-temperature, low pressure, 135 MWth NRU enabled great advances across a wide swath of globally important industrial sectors.

Case in point, NRU was used to prove out many concepts which 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, it has powered the lives of millions while avoiding billions of tons of greenhouse gas emissions. In 2014, Ontario became the first jurisdiction in North America to completely phase out the use of coal–fired power plants, an accomplishment made possible by CANDU. And, it has spawned a thriving nuclear supply chain across the country, serving as a beacon that has inspired many generations of bright Canadian minds and skilled Canadian hands. 

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 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 shone 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 examine root systems to help address global food production issues as a result of climate change.  

And, an accomplishment I am personally particularly proud of, the NRU is finishing its service life in a condition as safe – or safer – than it has ever been. We continue to make improvements in how we operate, maintain and work within the facility. NRU is one of the oldest operating nuclear research reactors in the world, yet it remains in the top three for annual operating days (in 2016/17, NRU achieved 234 operating days) and has continued a steady improvement on mean time between trips and unplanned shutdowns. This is no small feat, and demonstrates clearly, our commitment to safe operation and the pride that so many across CNL have in this venerable machine.

NRU has indeed made a difference in the world, and this month, the 60th anniversary of its first start-up, is an opportunity to pause, reflect and celebrate. Congratulations and thank-you to the entire team that has made all of this possible: scientists, engineers, operators, researchers, office staff, and management.

Dave Cox
Vice-President, Operations
Chief Nuclear Officer