CNL lays out 10-year vision for transformation of Chalk River nuclear facility

Mark Henderson
May 24, 2017

The transition of the storied nuclear facility at Chalk River ON to the private sector and its future role in scientific research is becoming clear with the release of a 10-year strategic plan by its new owner Canadian Nuclear Laboratories (CNL). Increasing R&D collaboration with domestic and international partners and a greater commercial focus will become the norm following the shutdown of the National Research Universal (NRU) reactor on March 31/18 as CNL seeks to leverage both internal and external S&T capabilities into new or enhanced products and markets.

CNL — a privately held company overseen by Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd (AECL) — will implement the plan using $800 million in funding from the federal government which was announced in April/16. Under the government of Stephen Harper, management of CNL was contracted out to Canadian National Energy Alliance (CNEA) — a consortium of foreign firms led by Montreal-based SNC Lavalin.

The 2016-2026 Integrated Plan includes shrinking the Chalk River site and incorporating flexibility into the facilities, reorienting its S&T capabilities and expanding its global reach,  extensive decommissioning work and the development of small modular reactors (SMRs) that can be used in resource extraction and remote communities,

“CNL will position itself as a national laboratory that serves federal departments and agencies with the flexibility to engage with and compete in international markets,” states the plan. “This flexibility is required to sustain state-of-the-art infrastructure which will attract revenue from domestic and international commercial customers.”

CNL will pursue four S&T programs in energy (extending the life of existing reactors, advanced fuel fabrication, SMRs, decarbonisation of the transport sector and remote communities), health (radiobiology research, production of Alpha-emitting isotopes), safety and security (nuclear cyber security, nuclear forensics and response) and environment (stewardship, radioactive waste management).

Those programs will in turn be underpinned by six areas of S&T expertise:

  • advanced nuclear fuels and materials research;
  • radiobiology, radioecology and dosimetry;
  • hydrogen and hydrogen isotopes management;
  • nuclear safety, security and risk management;
  • nuclear and systems engineering; and,
  • nuclear chemistry applications.

While the strategic plan includes the purchase of new equipment and the refurbishment of existing buildings or construction of new facilities, there’s little doubt that the R&D operations will be smaller than what existed during AECL’s heyday, particularly due to the loss of the NRU and a greater emphasis on applied research.

 “Future nuclear R&D and innovation will be more commercially focused (and) will more often demand a clear line of sight from R&D and innovation to commercial application before investing in power sector R&D projects”, said Dr Ron Oberth, president and CEO of the Organization of Canadian Nuclear Industries during a presentation last November to the House of Commons Standing Committee on Natural Resources. “While the shutdown of NRU in 2018 could have some negative impacts, the Canadian nuclear industry will engage in more international R&D collaborations to offset this loss of domestic R&D capability.”

Much of that international collaboration could occur through the members of the CNRA consortium which is comprised of Energy Solutions, Salt Lake City UT (waste disposal), CH2M Hill, Meridian CO (nuclear project management), Fluor, Santa Ana CA (engineering, procurement, construction, and project-management) and Rolls Royce Nuclear Canada Ltd, Peterborough ON (nuclear equipment design and supply).

Key new centre of expertise

A key centrepiece of the revitalized facility will be the Advanced Nuclear Materials Research Centre (ANMRC) to facilitate the handling, testing, characterization, examination and analysis of irradiated fuels and materials. The centre will handle the inflow of new scientific and technical talent while supporting existing reactor fleets, including “current capabilities of the Universal Cells, Fuel and Materials Cells, Recycled Fuel Fabrication Laboratory, metallographic laboratories and the storage and fuel handling capabilities of the NRU rod bays”.

The ANMRC is the single largest planned capital investment with anticipated funding for the development and demonstration of new fuel fabrication concepts of $50 million over 10 years — a sum that could grow to $500 million if new commercial partners come on board.

The centre’s activities will also include the life extension and asset management of current facilities as well as initiatives in support of SMR development, the Alpha Research Institute (targeted radiation therapy to fight cancer and other diseases) and the Centre for Nuclear Forensics and Response to develop, test, validate and commercialize detectors and monitors to ensure nuclear security in Canada and internationally.

The potential for SMRs within the Canadian context represents one of CNL’s most attractive future offerings. It aims to position Canadian leadership in the niche area by demonstrating commercial viability by 2026. As a low-carbon, scalable and cost-effective alternative to energy sources currently used in resource extraction such as oil sands and remote communities, SMRs are being positioned to “fill other energy gaps and needs that often have unique Canadian interest.”

Curiously, the strategic plan does not mention the Canadian National Energy Alliance consortium that manages CNL, nor SNC Lavalin — the Canadian participant in the consortium that also purchased the former AECL’s CANDU nuclear reactor business in 2011 for $15 million through its subsidiary Candy Energy Inc.



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