Monday, August 10, 2009

Canada's nuclear-science brain trust hanging in the balance

In the Globe today, the latest in a series of reports that speak of a coming brain drain of the country's nuclear scientists if the Harper government's present vision comes to pass, Chalk River shuts down in 2016 and no nuclear research reactor is there to replace it: "Canada's nuclear know-how in a state of accelerated decay, scientists fear." The question becomes relevant again as the Harper government's expert panel that is presently deliberating on what to do to supply Canada with medical isotopes in the long run has received a number of proposals, many of them "accelerator" solutions, i.e., non-nuclear reactor sources of isotopes. The accelerators are less expensive propositions than nuclear solutions so the thinking from some is that the accelerator options may prove attractive to a Harper government with limited to nil political will on this file which they view as little but a problem.

But there's a big implication for Canada in moving in the direction of accelerators and away from the Chalk River nuclear research reactor model (or the Maples backups). That is, the loss of Canada's nuclear scientist crowd who will likely go elsewhere to pursue their research.

A decision by the panel in favour of accelerators, however, could signal an end to Canada's leadership in worldwide atomic research at a time when many industry observers are predicting a nuclear reactor renaissance.

"They could very well decide to go solely with an accelerator approach," Mr. Lockyear said. "That's a big decision for the country, though."


Designed more for experiments than power generation, Chalk River remains one of the top-five research reactors in the world. Dr. Ryan, a researcher who works primarily at McGill University, has been travelling to Chalk River's National Research Universal reactor for 12 years to conduct experiments with magnetic materials. When the aging facility shuts down, Dr. Ryan and hundreds of other members of the scientific community who rely on Chalk River will have to conduct their research overseas.

"You wouldn't see any newcomers to the field," he said. "The expertise simply thins out. And once it's gone, it's very difficult to get back."
The Globe report proceeds to cite the Maples mothballing as an example of a nuclear research failure and therefore the suggestion entertained is that if there is to be a brain drain, "nuclear experts brought it on themselves." There's no mention of the numerous experts with the opposite view of the Maples reactors' viability, a real disservice to the report. It's an incredible bit of short-sighted thinking that's presented but it's probably educational to know that there are those who think it's no big deal if Canada's nuclear scientists take a hike. That's a real possibility as a result of the Harper government's deliberations now.

The better thinking here is that the possibility of Canada losing an entire field of leading edge researchers should not be permitted to happen. Amazing that we actually have to say such things these days.