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October 16, 2023

Why getting to know nuclear is now more important than ever

By Dr. Amy Gottschling, Vice-President, Science, Technology and Commercial Oversight, Atomic Energy of Canada Limited and Dr. Jeff Griffin, Vice-President, Science and Technology, Canadian Nuclear Laboratories

From October 16 until 20, we celebrate Nuclear Science Week. The weeklong event invites people all over the globe to “Get to Know Nuclear” as national nuclear laboratories, utility companies, industry and universities plan campaigns to showcase the achievements of the nuclear sciences.  Both Atomic Energy of Canada Limited (AECL) and Canadian Nuclear Laboratories (CNL) keenly participate.

On a personal note, we both come from backgrounds in the fundamental sciences, chemistry in particular. So not surprisingly, if you ask us – there’s nothing cooler than working in nuclear science. After all, researching the atomic nucleus has helped build a fundamental understanding of the universe, and our planet within it. Nuclear science has advanced human health through such life-saving developments as diagnostic technology and cancer treatment. It has unlocked new insights into materials which have changed industry.  And, as a non-emitting power source, nuclear has also helped put Ontario on the map as one of the world’s cleanest electricity grids. While we don’t know everyone’s familiarity with its history or all its applications, we do know we need more Canadians getting to know the benefits of nuclear.

The recent resurgence of nuclear as a beneficial technology to address some of our nation’s biggest challenges, including climate change and the increasing need for novel cancer therapies, is making it an exciting time here at Canada’s national nuclear laboratory.  The 9,000+ acre Chalk River campus is home to 122 science labs and more than 3,500 employees.  We implement AECL’s Federal Nuclear Science and Technology Work Plan – a program that is ensuring Canada maintain its status as a tier-one nuclear nation by honing and developing new capabilities at CNL to support nuclear technology advancements, safety and security, the health of Canadians and our country’s environment. CNL’s capabilities also support industry R&D – including CANDU reactor utilities and small modular reactor (SMR) developers, and a significant number of international working groups focused on nuclear R&D will include subject matter experts from CNL.

Yet, developing this new nuclear landscape of the future will require a much larger workforce – from scientists and engineers across all disciplines to technologists and skilled trades to the entire supporting cast.  That’s why it’s never been more critical to foster a passion for nuclear science in students – to support their learning in both elementary and secondary schools, provide them with mentorship and unique learning experiences in their post-secondary studies and foster their expertise, knowledge, and area of interest in their graduate studies.

This past year, CNL and AECL launched an Academic Partnership Program that complements our long-standing education outreach program to support science education in our communities’ schools and builds on partnerships with many Canadian universities. With a focus on cultivating students across their full post-secondary education experience via a range of opportunities, including co-ops, internships, thesis or capstone work, R&D challenges, and scholarships, we’ve formalized commitments with six Canadian universities to-date. This program will ensure students not only get to know nuclear but can explore their potential in nuclear science and pursue meaningful and collaborative research at CNL’s revitalized Chalk River campus. It’s set to grow, but a part of its long-term success will need the conversations on nuclear science in schools and in homes to grow too – and significantly.

Those who work in the nuclear industry know very well the benefits of nuclear science, and we’ve learned a great deal on how we can communicate it to our host communities and government decision makers. It’s certainly aided in the growing public support for nuclear energy and government investment in new projects.  And it’s an exciting field of work, offering a large variety of opportunities to learn and grow, advance, and succeed in almost any area – so no matter what you want to do or what you want to be, there is something in nuclear that will interest you.

So as Nuclear Science Week kicks off today – we encourage you to get to know nuclear, and if you know it – don’t forget to use your voice to engage others in conversations about it. After all, we all have a vested interest in nuclear science’s potential – the future of our planet.

Both CNL and AECL are thrilled to join the extensive list of Canadian organizations and universities committed to celebrating nuclear science this week. Visit CNL and AECL social media sites and follow the conversation at #NuclearSciWeek.

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