Dal shutting down reactor

Decommissioning will take two years, involve community input

The University of Toronto's SLOWPOKE reactor prior to its decommissioning process, which was completed in 2001.

Old technology will be a thing of the past as Dalhousie University officials begin the process of dismantling a decades-old nuclear reactor in the Life Sciences Centre.

The SLOWPOKE reactor (Safe Low Power Critical Experiment) was commissioned in 1976, but no longer serves a purpose. According to Raymond Ilson, director of Environmental Health and Safety at Dalhousie, it was studied closely over the years, mainly for neutron activation analysis in the Department of Chemistry. It was used in hundreds of master's theses, but research slowly came to an end in 2008.

"I imagine that there are other more modern chemical technologies which provide the same or more information for researchers," Ilson says.

So what does it look like? It's smaller than a nuclear power generator and comprised of instruments, control panels and several large concrete blocks that cover a pool of water housing fuel and other reactor parts. But don't expect to see it. Access to the reactor is restricted to only five authorized individuals.

"Basically we control the perimeter," Ilson says. "But no one working at or near the reactor has ever received any contamination or radiation dose."

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Raymond Ilson, director of Environmental Health and Safety. Photo: Karen Jouhal

Ilson calls this a "remarkable achievement."

"There is sensitive instrumentation in place to detect any such issues," he notes. Instruments to assess personal exposure also exist.

Staff, faculty and students have been invited to voice any questions or concerns they have about the decommissioning at meetings. Last week was the second such meeting with the Dalhousie University Community Committee, organized by the president's office.

"There have been no expressions of concern over safety or environmental issues thus far," states Ilson.

"My impression is that people understand that the university is managing this process safely, under the oversight of a high level university committee led by the vice-president."

If all goes as planned, the decommissioning of the reactor will be completed over the next two years. Strict legal guidelines set by the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission will be followed to ensure its safe removal.

In 2001, a similar reactor was decommissioned at the University of Toronto without incident.

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