Nuclear reactor at Hamilton’s McMaster University relicensed for 20 more years

A 2018 photo of McMaster University's nuclear reactor. An unprecedented licence extension for the facility means it has regulatory certainty for at least another two decades in Hamilton, Ont. McMaster University

An unprecedented licence extension for McMaster’s Nuclear Reactor (MNR) means the facility can operate for at least another two decades in Hamilton, Ont.

The 20-year renewal granted by the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission means the operation has regulatory certainty to continue local production of medical isotopes, which are used to diagnose and treat health conditions such as heart disease and cancer.

Nuclear engineering professor David Novog said typically the outlet has been getting two- to five-year extensions during its 65-year existence, except for a 10-year renewal in 2014.

“That we were able to establish a safety case and all of the maintenance routines to allow the regulators to give us a 20-year licence like this is unprecedented,” Novog said.

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“When you’re planning your future of the reactor on what isotopes you’re going to make or what businesses you want to get into, it’s nice to have the certainty that the licence will be there for 20 years.”

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The university’s reactor first began operating in 1959 and currently produces half of the world’s supply of iodine 125 (I-125), providing cancer treatments for about 70,000 patients a year.

McMaster is one of the world’s leading suppliers of I-125, which can be used in imaging and radiation therapy to  treat a number of conditions, including prostate cancer, uveal melanomas and brain tumours.

“They’re used in devices or attached to drugs mainly to treat cancer by delivering a dose of radiation to cancer cells that’s enough to kill them while … leaving the healthy tissue, alive,” explained Dave Tucker, the university’s vice-president of nuclear research.

The location also conducts tests on engine turbine blades for commercial aircraft and researches new forms of low-carbon electricity.

Novog said the operation, a five-megawatt research space, moved into isotopes during the 1990s as reactors in Darlington, Bruce and Pickering took on the lion’s share of power generation across Ontario.

“What’s happened over time, is those reactors matured and … the business model for the research reactor here at Mac changed to be more centred around the production of medical isotopes and cancer treatment,” Novog said.

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The World Nuclear Association estimates that over 50 million nuclear medicine procedures involving isotopes are performed each year, and demand is increasing.

Although there are roughly 200 plants across 40 countries in the world capable of producing radioisotopes for medical applications, the International Atomic Energy Agency estimates only about 25 do so regularly.

The MNR also produces holmium-166, also used in medical isotopes used to treat cancer.

Last year, the venue received $6.8 million for upgrades via the Ford government’s $850-million boost in hospital funding.

Spread over three years, it aided a $25-million project allowing the MNR to operate 24 hours a day, five days per week.

Running at low temperatures and pressure, Novog said the MNR doesn’t experience the same type of degradation most plants do, thus justifying the licence extension over the next few decades.

“The environment is so benign, we really don’t have any life-limiting components in the reactor,” according to Novog.

“What limits us is our ability to pay the bills and be able to fund our school and staff. We largely do that from a business model that’s centred around the creation of isotopes.”

Over the last two years, the facility has added some 25 new jobs and offered work experiences to over 100 McMaster University students.

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Recent funding commitments will see Canada’s first neutron beam lab in Hamilton, allowing scientists to explore neutron scattering, a nondestructive technique allowing for the study of 3D structures.

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