Uranium core transport first stage of reactor decommissioning

Once the truck reached the border, it was handed over to U.S. Department of Energy officials and transported to the Savannah River Site, a nuclear facility in South Carolina where, according to Crabtree, the core will be repurposed.De-fuelling the reactor was the first step toward its eventual decommissioning, a lengthy process that is expected to take between six and nine months and cost SRC up to $7.5 million. This time next year, the reactor will be entirely gone.Built into the floor of a nondescript Innovation Place building and shielded by more than a foot of concrete, the Safe LOW Power Kritical Experiment (SLOWPOKE) reactor was one of seven commissioned across the country.While the reactor uses the same nuclear fission process as a utility-scale reactor like the one Bruce Power proposed for Saskatchewan a decade ago, it is tiny — roughly 1/10,000 the size, producing around 20 kilowatts of power.During its 37-year operational life, it performed more than a quarter-million tests. The reactor was used primarily for neutron activation analysis, a process aimed at determining the concentration of various elements in various samples.Over the last few years, new, non-radiological methods of performing many of the same tests have been developed, leading Crabtree to say that in terms of its “overall raison d’être, it was no longer operationally viable, commercially or technically.” A control unit for the Saskatchewan Research Council’s now-defuelled SLOWPOKE-2 nuclear reactor. Saskatchewan Research Council / Saskatoon Saskatchewan Research Council / Saskatoon The operation was conducted in near-total secrecy.Only those who absolutely needed to know were aware of the truck’s load when it pulled away from the University of Saskatchewan and headed for the American border one day early last month.While the Saskatchewan Research Council, which oversaw the journey, won’t say much about other security precautions, its chief executive officer acknowledged that secrecy was of paramount importance “for obvious reasons.”That’s because the truck was carrying the core of a nuclear reactor, a paint can-sized assembly of uranium fuel rods and beryllium control structures immersed in water and sealed in an 8,000-pound lead-lined transport container.“When you get down to it, it’s a few kilograms of material,” Mike Crabtree said of the core, which has provided a steady stream of neutrons for SRC’s SLOWPOKE-2 research reactor since it was commissioned in 1981.Story continues belowThis advertisement has not loaded yet,but your article continues below.“If you were to look at it — you wouldn’t, but if you were — it’s a grey, lead-ish colour metal. The amount of uranium that was in our reactor would fit comfortably in a gallon pail, a paint-sized can,” Crabtree added. Under its Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission operating licence, SRC began socking away money for the decommissioning around a decade ago. That licence also covers the defuelling, which required experts — SNC-Lavalin subsidiary Candu Energy Inc.“Whilst we are experts at the operation of the SLOWPOKE-2 nuclear reactor, we are not experts at decommissioning reactors. This is not something you do every day,” Crabtree said of the decision to bring in outside experts.SNC-Lavalin referred a request for comment back to SRC. The U.S. Department of Energy did not respond to requests for comment.Earlier this summer, Candu Energy and SRC workers clad in radiation suits used a hoist to lift the water-immersed core out of the reactor and place it in a specially-designed transport vessel, one that won’t break if it falls off the back of a truck.After it sat in the reactor room to “cool” for around two weeks, the core was loaded on the back of a truck and began the first leg of its journey to the sprawling Savannah River Facility south of Augusta, Georgia. But that is only half of the process.This week, SRC officials including Crabtree were in Ottawa to apply to the CNSC for a decommissioning licence, which will allow the remnants of the reactor to be disassembled and any radioactive material taken to Chalk River Laboratories in Ontario for storage.Once CNSC grants the licence, a process Crabtree expects will take a few months, the work will take up to half a year. Once the water is purified and disposed of and the gaping hole in the floor filled with cement, it will be like the reactor was never there, he said.It will be the end of an era for what one SRC scientist, speaking to the Saskatoon StarPhoenix a decade ago, called “one of Saskatchewan’s best-kept secrets” — a reactor most had no idea existed until it was already gone.amacpherson@postmedia.comtwitter.com/macphersonaRelated Inside the now-de-fuelled Saskatchewan Research Council SLOWPOKE-2 nuclear reactor. ‘There is life after remediation’: Gunnar mine reclamation forging ahead despite legal battle New Orano CEO to spend more time making the case for nuclear power Uncertainty remains but Cameco ‘pleased’ with Trump’s uranium decision