Monday, August 10, 2009

Canada's Nuclear Know-How in a State of Accelerated Decay?

This article presents the issues surrounding the aging Chalk River nuclear reactor facility in Canada.

With problems continuing to plague the aged Chalk River reactor, once the source of more than half the world's supply of the radioactive material vital for cancer and cardiac testing, the four-member panel has been charged with recommending a new source by Nov. 30.

It examines two important aspect of the story:

1. The fate of nuclear isotope source for the world since the facility produces close to 50% of the world supplies of isotopes for nuclear medicine

2. The possible decline of nuclear expertise in Canada if the facility shuts down with any similar replacement.

I've mentioned earlier about the alternative option of using a particle accelerator to generate the Mo99 isotopes. Certainly this is a viable, but untested, alternative.

The accelerator proposal put forth by TRIUMF, a subatomic physics lab at the University of British Columbia, uses an electron accelerator to fire a photon beam at uranium, producing moly-99. But it's an untested process creating an unfamiliar product and a whole lot of questions.

For instance, reactor-based tech-99 is "milked" from moly-99 using a device called a generator, or moly cow. But the accelerator-based moly-99 may differ from reactor-based moly-99 just enough that an entirely new model of cow would have to be manufactured, adding considerably to the startup costs.

Such option is also being considered in other parts of the world, including the US. We will see how this will turn out. I think we are still in the "proof-of-principle" stage of the development.


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