Thursday, May 21, 2009

Linda Keen and Some Actual Scientists Weigh In on Chalk River

The most interesting thing I found about this article was not so much Linda Keen saying "I told you so" about the slow death of the Chalk River NRU, but the perspective she and others have on the now-mothballed MAPLE reactors - and why they think they still might be salvaged.

A project to build two isotope-producing reactors called the Maples to replace the aging NRU was cancelled a year ago when AECL could not solve a design flaw in the cores of the proposed reactors that would make them more prone to a meltdown. At that time, the infrastructure to house the cores had already been built.

Ms. Keen said she was told the Maples had problems in 2001, when she arrived at the CNSC.

“One of my staff who has since retired said, ‘You know, we are going to be bringing out the cement machines to fill that in,'” she said.

“The fact that it took seven years to decide [to scrap it] and many millions of dollars is because the AECL engineers tried their hardest to make it work. But the CNSC had really great physicists – and still has, I believe – and the CNSC said, ‘No, it is an inherently flawed design.'”

I tend to view the world through the lens of whatever book I happen to be reading, which at the moment is "Voltaire's Bastards" by John Ralston Saul. I admit to being a bit out of my depth with this one, having no background in philosophy whatsoever (I knew Voltaire was French...), but I read that last paragraph and instantly recognized the work of rational technocrats who truly believe that no problem cannot be solved through the application of hard work and a well thought-out plan - even if that plan is based on a faulty premise and the results are demonstrably catastrophic.

This is the same mindset that had kept the U.S. fighting unwinnable wars for the past five decades and has kept our leaders committed to the notion that Friedman-esque free market capitalism is the best way to run an economy, despite all evidence to the contrary.

I thought of all this as I envisioned these doggedly determined engineers slogging away at their project, all the while assuming that the problem somehow lay in the execution and not the design. And, of course, the government bureaucrats prodding them along saying, "You can't stop now - we have too much invested!"

Meanwhile, the actual scientists are looking at this problem and are stating what seems obvious to us non-technocrats:

But nuclear-medicine specialists are questioning why AECL and the government walked away from the project without a contingency plan.

Robert Atcher, the New Mexico-based president of the Society of Nuclear Medicine, said doctors are asking “Well, they've built the infrastructure, why don't they consider using some other reactor design?”

A committee struck by the U.S. National Research Council to examine ways of producing medical isotopes without highly enriched uranium – which the Americans fear could be used to build bombs – suggested in a recent report using a different kind of core for the Maples.

Thomas Ruth, a senior research scientist at the British Columbia Cancer Agency and TRIUMF – Canada's National Laboratory for Particle and Nuclear Physics – was also a member of that committee. He said the decision to walk away from the Maples was probably tied to political and business issues.

“To the non-expert, it looks like a solution,” Dr. Ruth said yesterday of the committee's recommendation to use different cores.

“They have the processing facility, they have the control room, the infrastructure is all there. What is involved with changing out the core? ... But government is supporting [AECL] in that decision. It's not like government is saying, ‘Hey, guys, get in there, fix it, find a solution.' They're not doing that.”

I'll have to add that to my list of questions for Lisa Raitt.


  1. This notion that there's no problem that we cannot solve is too often relied on as a justification for continuing to create problems for ourselves. How often do we quest for technological salvation from crises that have evolved from our own technology?

    I suspect there's some powerful defect in the human mind, a denial mechanism, that we use when we have that ice cream cone we don't really need and also when we insist that we carry on with wars we cannot win.

    My problem with Chalk River isn't that old machinery wears out. It's that Harper has been in power for going on four years now and has simply allowed this situation to worsen.

  2. Jen, I checked and we're not cousins after all. My sole surviving aunt said my mother had a high school friend named Truax in Leamington before the war. I'd heard the name from her several times over the years and I thought there was some relation.

  3. I have a couple of friends who run a little commercial video production house, and they're working on a documentary based on one economist's thesis that the survival instincts humans developed through our early evolution actually predispose us to fail at things like the stock market and other aspects of modern life. I suspect the same applies here.

    As for the Truaxs, that's actually more interesting because my great-grandfather was born in Leamington. See if you can find out the name for me - I'll bet it was either a sibling or a first cousin. Then I'll tell you the story of how my family ended up in Leamington because of a bar fight :)

  4. Hi Jennifer...I see this is a metaphor for the state of our country. We developed the technology, we became world leaders in using nuclear stuff to help heal people instead of building bombs. Thirty percent of the world's people came to depend on us for all the right reasons. And instead of building on that proud achievement we let it all run down, and didn't do what we had to do...and now we look bad.
    Doesn't that sound familiar...