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The Canadian Nuclear FAQ  

by Dr. Jeremy Whitlock


Published in the May 2000 issue of the Canadian Nuclear Society Bulletin, Vol.21, No.1.   Artwork courtesy of Lorne Whitlock.


by Jeremy Whitlock

"The Italian navigator has landed in the New World."
        - Arthur Compton, 1942, reporting the first criticality of CP-1

"Operational condition reached."
        - Lew Kowarski, 1945, reporting the first criticality of ZEEP

"The Project has achieved a major milestone for which we are all very proud."
        - Jean-Pierre Labrie, 2000, reporting the first criticality of MMIR-1


The births of babies and reactors are anticipated with similar emotion. A collective sigh of joy and relief greeted the word of Chalk River's MAPLE isotope reactor going critical at 2:13 AM on Saturday, February 19. Once more the dragon's tail had been tickled in the deep bush of the Canadian Shield.

For AECL the milestone was both extraordinary and routine. On the one hand, the days are gone when creating a self-sustaining fission chain-reaction brought us one step closer to God - today it's not "if" it can be done, but whether the paperwork will weigh more than the reactor itself when it is done. On the other hand, the event marks the operation of the first MAPLE reactor in Canada (but not the world; the Koreans took that honour in 1995), and probably the first reactor in the world of the new millennium.

The gestation period was long and trying for all involved. Almost aborted in the mid-90s, the embryo was ultimately split to create identical twins. At the same time a paternity suit and a fresh infusion of cash (the life's blood of science) ensured both the viability of the foetuses, and one notable aspect of their future life: they would not be civil servants. Owned by global radioisotope supplier MDS Nordion of Kanata, Ontario, the two reactors are also the first in Canada built exclusively for, and funded by, the private sector.

Ironically, and unbeknownst to many observers, the MAPLE project at Chalk River sits on the hallowed site of the ZEEP reactor. As every red-blooded Canadian youngster should know, ZEEP was this country's first nuclear reactor, and the first in the world outside the United States. (It wasn't the world's first heavy-water reactor, although by coincidence a Canadian, the late Walter Zinn of Kitchener, Ontario, claimed that honour in Chicago a year earlier.)

Canada's first "pile" achieved initial criticality three weeks after the end of the WWII, on September 5, 1945, with heads still spinning over Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Until very recently ZEEP, as an item of national heritage, held an important distinction over its world-famous cousin in the squash court at Stagg Field: it was still around. Historically-minded Americans, their government having decades ago removed all traces of Fermi's first pile and the building that housed it at the University of Chicago, had to settle for etchings, chunks of graphite, and a monument that looks oddly like the marriage of a skull and a mushroom cloud.

The simple structure housing Canada's first reactor languished for years following ZEEP's shutdown in 1970, but eventually served as a humble and appropriate museum to the early days at Chalk River. In 1995 the "Little Reactor That Could" was royally feted on its 50th birthday: a vivid symbol of Canada's technological Coming of Age and the beginning of post-war prosperity.

Then, over the summer of 1997, ZEEP was summarily erased to make room for the second of the two MAPLE isotope reactors, thus adding a final distinction to its record: first Canadian reactor to be completely decommissioned, right to the dirt. Being a symbol of achievement means diddly when you're standing in the way of progress.

Although the characteristic building and dusty lab within are gone, the reactor components have been painstakingly catalogued and stored. Hopefully AECL will follow through with its intentions of a worthy ZEEP memorial, although many share the opinion that the national treasure was destroyed along with the building. That may be unforgivable.

In ZEEP's place (literally) a commercial isotope production reactor awaits completion. Itself a shining testament to Canada's maturity in the research-reactor business, the young MAPLE need not concern itself with Ghosts of Reactors Past. How apt, though, to compare the old and the new; the symbolism is too striking to ignore:

ZEEP was built as a top-secret government research tool, eventually declassified but forever dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge. Its descendent fifty years later is being built on a commercial basis, solely as a producer of medical radioisotopes. What was once a subsidized curiosity now brings home the bacon.

ZEEP was part of the war against Germany and Japan; MAPLE is part of the war against sickness and disease.

ZEEP's primary purpose was to test the fuel lattices for the behemoth NRX reactor next door. Half a century later the test lattice for the MAPLE reactor exists only in electronic form, refined at the touch of a button on a desktop computer.

In ZEEP's day transatlantic travel generally took a week. Today the isotopes created in the two new MAPLE reactors can be extracted, processed, and placed in the hands of doctors anywhere in the world within that same time frame.

The public still says "who cares?" to any of this; that much hasn't changed.

So happy birthday MMIR-1, a worthy harbinger of the next fifty years of nuclear technology in Canada. May your twin sister's schedule slip just a tiny bit so she can become the world's first reactor of the mathematically correct millennium.

Discussion welcome.

©2011 Jeremy Whitlock

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