Monday, November 24, 2014

My Summer At A Nuclear Research Facility

On Memory, Science & Faith

“It is sadder to find the past again and find it inadequate to the present than it is to have it elude you and remain forever a harmonious conception of memory.”
—F. Scott Fitzgerald & Zelda Fitzgerald,
Esquire (New York, June 1934). "Show Mr. and Mrs. F to Number—"
The Summer of 1980: In this Polaroid photo, I am in front of a zirconium alloy fuel bundle (50 cm long by 10 cm in diameter and weighing 20 kg), which was on display at the Public Information Centre at Chalk River Nuclear Laboratories. Apparently, corduroy jackets were fashionable then.
Source: Perry J. Greenbaum

My recent post (“Nuclear Life and Death”; Oct 18, 2014) on remembering Chernobyl brought to mind my own brief experience where I worked one summer, in 1980, as an engineering student at a nuclear research facility in eastern Ontario (Chalk River Nuclear Laboratories). The facility is 180 kilometres (110 miles) north-west of Ottawa, Canada’s capital. and straddles the Ottawa River. It is also near a large military base, Garrison Petawawa, the largest in Canada. We resided in dorms in the nearby bedroom community of Deep River.

Each year, the research facility hired dozens of university students for the summer, each of us were rigorously selected, or so we were told; and although most were drawn from the hard sciences, a few were not, including two of my colleagues who came from the school of languages. That summer, I was one of six tour guides, offering the general public tours of the nuclear facility. This was right after Three Mile Island, a nuclear incident that took place the year before in the United States, in Middletown, Pennsylvania, thus bringing the whole nuclear industry under much scrutiny, and rightfully and understandably so.

Here is an overview from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s fact sheet:
The Three Mile Island Unit 2 (TMI-2) reactor, near Middletown, Pa., partially melted down on March 28, 1979. This was the most serious accident in U.S. commercial nuclear power plant operating history, although its small radioactive releases had no detectable health effects on plant workers or the public. Its aftermath brought about sweeping changes involving emergency response planning, reactor operator training, human factors engineering, radiation protection, and many other areas of nuclear power plant operations. It also caused the NRC to tighten and heighten its regulatory oversight. All of these changes significantly enhanced U.S. reactor safety.
The focus on safety was also apparent in Canada, although Canada’s CANDU reactor is designed differently than its American counterpart, and is arguably safer (i.e., the use of a heavy water moderator and of unenriched uranium in the form of sintered UO2 pellets). Not surprising, a large part of our three-week training program was dedicated to preparing us six guides to answer all questions, including controversial ones, on nuclear energy and the issues surrounding safety and security. We were all keen and eager to explain to the public why nuclear energy was both safe, but also why it was important to secure Canada’s energy needs. Equally important, Canada’s nuclear reactor program and design was also a viable economic export.

The Training Program: The six of us, and our boss, Frank Finley, at one of the many nuclear sites we visited during our three-week training program as tour guides.
Source: Perry J. Greenbaum
Chalk River's importance as a supplier of medical isotopes used in the diagnosis and in the treatment of cancer is undeniable; it is not only the world’s largest supplier of medical isotopes such as cobalt-60 (radiation treatment) and Technetium-99m (diagnosis), but by far the world’s leading supplier. These have been produced at Chalk River’s National Research Universal, or NRU reactor, since the early1950s. I stood on top of the NRU reactor numerous times while conducting tours; it was part of my job and is one of those stories that sound strange but are true.

Stories aside, my views on nuclear power or energy for wide-spread residential and business use have changed since then, and for many reasons, including that of safety. It might be more harmful than its advocates say, and yet safer than its opponents say. Even so, it is more than likely that nuclear energy is probably not a good idea for humanity, that there are better alternatives that need be developed. Eventually, these might be; when this happens is unpredictable.

As for changing views, such is the sign of an open and honest mind, and not of a wishy-washy mind as some contend.  What one sees as good and possible at one time can change at another time. Many “truths” are not eternal; they change with new evidence, new knowledge, with one’s increasing age. One can have faith in science that is as dogmatic and unchanging as faith in religion. At least that has been my observation.

It is interesting to note that youth and inexperience confer a high degree of optimism and exuberance about things, including technology, that age and experience tends to diminish if not dull altogether. At times, this leads to cynicism; at other times it leads to new knowledge. I have come to think that I have more knowledge today than I had then. But I am wistful of late, wishing that I would today have the enthusiasm and exuberance for the possibilities that the future holds as I did back in 1980 when I was much younger and much more hopeful. Yet, faith in something is not the same as knowledge about something.

Some Birthday Cake: Brigitte, one of the guides, has a birthday; the cake was a surprise, if my memory is correct.
Source: Perry J. Greenbaum
Yet, we can only know with certainty what we or others can prove. The rest is a matter of belief or faith or doubt, and we live with its uncertainties. Did my summer working at a nuclear research facility contribute to my having cancer more than three decades later? Did I make too many visits to NRU? It’s possible, but I could never know for sure. I have thought about it, but not too much. Over-analysis has no positive purpose.

Over-all, I think about my memories. This is to say that I did enjoy my time at Chalk River (and the residential community of Deep River); I did meet many fine and generous persons, including a high proportion of dedicated scientists and engineers, during my four months there. If a summer job is supposed to help us learn and gain real-life experience and knowledge, then this was the summer I learned the most. Truly, it was a memorable summer in more ways than one. (For one, I was a member of the tennis & yacht club.)

Even so, it is said you cannot go back to the way things were, that the past remains in the past; and so we must forget what we wished then. If only I could; it would make my life, and the living of it, much easier.

In Part 2: The Day After My Summer Ends

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