Along the banks of the Ottawa River, 180 km to the northwest of our nation’s capital and its parliamentary sprawl, sits Chalk River Laboratories.  Operated by Atomic Energy of Canada Limited (AECL) — a federal-run Crown corporation — the lab is Canada’s largest nuclear science and technology research facility.  Since 1944 it has been the beating heart of nuclear innovation in Canada.

“Ontario is the heartland of the nuclear sector."

“Ontario is the heartland of the nuclear sector,” says Ron Oberth, president of the Organization of CANDU Industries — a trade association that advocates on behalf of Canada’s nuclear sector.

In a sense, Chalk River is a prime case study for the sheer amount of nuclear innovation being generated in Canada as a whole. The first nuclear power plant in the country went online near this site in 1962. The lab supplies much of the world with the isotopes needed for nuclear medicine. It’s also responsible for advancements in the aerospace industry and fuel cycle technology.

“They provide information on nuclear that informs the regulation and licensing of nuclear power and work that supports the safe operation of power plants,” says Oberth. “A lot of the innovations that have allowed Canada to achieve success through its CANDU reactor technology were developed initially at Chalk River.”

“Canada is very proud and fortunate to have a very major bank of innovation at Chalk River in the Ottawa valley."

Increased flexibility

Canada’s CANDU reactor is, in itself, a key accomplishment in nuclear innovation. One strength of this reactor is its fuel versatility, being capable of burning a myriad of fuel types, from natural uranium, to enriched uranium as well as thorium and refuse plutonium.

“The way it was designed makes it able to utilize a variety of different fuel types better than other reactor technologies,” says Bill Kupferschmidt, VP of Research and Development at AECL, “that gives it a real niche opportunity in the world.”

The online fueling (meaning fuel is cyclically replaced) and heavy water moderated reactor is a prime tool for reusing the nuclear waste generated by light water reactors like those operated in many other countries like China. “Canada is very proud and fortunate to have a very major bank of innovation at Chalk River in the Ottawa valley,” adds Oberth.

“I think there is a lack of understanding about the benefits of nuclear on jobs, on livelihoods and the benefits brought with respect to medical diagnosis and treatment using nuclear technologies,”

Our nuclear landscape

But the nuclear sector goes beyond the confines of the Ottawa Valley.  In Canada, the nuclear industry supports around 30,000 direct jobs ranging from uranium mining to scientific research. The industry produces more than $6 billion in annual revenues, according to stats from Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters and the Canadian Energy Research Institute.

Even still, Kupferschmidt thinks many Canadians would be surprised about the innovation happening in their own backyards. “I think there is a lack of understanding about the benefits of nuclear on jobs, on livelihoods and the benefits brought with respect to medical diagnosis and treatment using nuclear technologies,” he says.

“We’re just trying to find those synergies where we can combine to be successful.”

On the global stage

Nuclear innovation is also making Canada a vital player on the global stage. In November, OCI and AECL will partake in trade missions both south to the Power-Gen tradeshow in Orlando, Florida and over to India.

“It’s our first ever trade mission to India — there hasn’t been any nuclear cooperation with the country since 1974,” says Oberth.

China is next on the agenda, says Oberth. The purposes of those trade missions are to form strategic partnerships that will help Canada both at home and abroad.

“Every country likes to develop its own domestic supply chain, Americans aren’t looking to export jobs to Canada; they want to create quality long-term jobs for their own people as we do in our own country,” says Oberth. “We’re just trying to find those synergies where we can combine to be successful.”

As nuclear becomes increasingly global, Oberth anticipates Canada will play a role in the next generation of reactor technology and nuclear research. And most of it will come from that lab tucked in the rolling hills of the Ottawa Valley.