The Rise and Fall and Rise of the McMaster Nuclear Reactorby Al Rose
Saunders joined the McMaster team in 1995, following the shutdown of the reactor after a criticality incident. He brought to the position a broad background in nuclear operations which includes time in NPD, Bruce and Ontario Hydro head office as well as a period in Atlanta, Georgia.
The 1994 criticality incident was characterised by Saunders as a procedural error caused by the stress of the poor economic situation that had developed at the MNR. Although no actual damage resulted, the reactor power had peaked at 8.6 MW before the automatic shutdown system took control. This exceeded the license limit of 5 MW, which then required a full safety review. The bad publicity combined with the poor financial picture resulted in the decision to cease operations.
During 1995 a review of the commercial possibilities with the help of companies external to the University, convinced the Board that commercial revenues were possible based on a sound business plan and the reactor was started up again in 1996 with Saunders in charge of operations as a service provider to both the academic research and education community and the industrial customers.
Saunders noted that MNR, commissioned in 1959, is still the largest university research reactor in the Commonwealth and that it exists in a heavily populated residential area with no deleterious effects on its neighbors.
The reactor design is extremely simple with no sophisticated mechanisms to deteriorate with time so that life expectancy is essentially unlimited. Saunders noted that the fuel is currently highly enriched uranium but that it will be converted soon to low enriched fuel obtained from the US and returned there for disposal. Later it is intended to convert to Canadian designed pin type fuel. To a question from the floor Saunders confirmed that fuel disposal and decommissioning costs were included in the business plan and that there would be no unpleasant surprises down the road from that point of view.
Saunders went on to describe the principal commercial activities as radioisotopes for medicine and research and neutron activation analysis (NAA) for industry. He noted that gross income was up by a factor of five since the 1995/96 year and that demand was growing rapidly. He said that the University was committed to the operation at least for the medium term and that modernization of the cooling towers and upgrading of the NAA and laboratory facilities was proceeding. A beryllium reflector would be added soon to reduce fuel consumption by a factor of two.