To say the SLOWPOKE-2 research reactor was small would be an understatement. Photo courtesy Saskatchewan Research Council

SASKATOON – While Saskatchewan is actively considering the deployment of multiple small modular reactors for power production, the reality is that, if they do come to pass, they won’t be this province’s first. That’s because for nearly 40 years, there’s been a research reactor in Saskatoon, at Innovation Place.

And when it comes to “small,” this reactor was about as small as you could possibly get. The core, itself, is, or was, the size of a shoe box. On Nov. 17, the Saskatchewan Research Council, which has been operating the (SRC) SLOWPOKE-2 nuclear research reactor, said it had been safely and successfully decommissioned after 38 years of successful operation.

The highly regulated, multi-year decommissioning process, overseen by the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC), included the removal and safe disposal of all materials associated with the reactor such as fuel and reactor parts. The SLOWPOKE-2 facility has been inspected and tested and the CNSC has officially deemed the decommissioning complete, the SRC said in a release. The space where the reactor was once situated is now available for regular or office use.

“This is another example of SRC demonstrating leadership and expertise,” Minister Responsible for SRC Jeremy Harrison said. “The SLOWPOKE-2 leaves a strong legacy in Saskatchewan and proves, now more than ever, that nuclear is safe, reliable and sustainable.”

Commissioned in 1981, the SLOWPOKE – short for Safe Low Power Critical Experiment – was used as an analytical tool for doing neutron activation analysis to determine uranium and other elemental concentrations in a wide variety of sample types for various industries. However, testing done by the reactor had decreased over the past years, and newer technologies were adopted, the SRC said.

“SRC is incredibly proud of the role our SLOWPOKE-2 played in adding value to the province by performing analytical testing for industry for the past 38 years,” SRC president and CEO Mike Crabtree said. “This hands-on experience with the SLOWPOKE-2 can be applied to emerging nuclear technology, such as small modular reactors, as we consider how to power our future.”

Highlights during the SLOWPOKE-2’s lifetime include nearly 242,000 tests performed and over 20,000 hours of operation.

The material in the reactor core originally came from the United States. “It was made up of highly enriched uranium that originally came from the United States. And so, the US Department of Energy has a program where they wanted to repeat repatriate the nuclear fuel that had left their country. And so, we were able to work with CNSC, U.S. Department of Energy, as well as the International Atomic Energy Agency, to get that fuel back to the U.S. Department of Energy,” said SRC communications manager Erin Taman Athmer.

A majority of the waste from decommissioning, which was not radioactive, went to local landfills and recycling facilities. Material that was radioactive was sent to Chalk River, Ontario, for long-term storage.

With regards to the province’s interest in small modular reactors, Taman Athmer said, “SRC’s hands on experience, with 38 years of operating the SLOWPOKE, can definitely be applied to emerging nuclear technologies such as SMRs, as we consider how to power our future. Industries such as mining, oil and gas, agriculture, are all looking to reliable low carbon technologies, like nuclear, to increase production and decrease their carbon footprint. So, SRC is uniquely positioned to play a role in nuclear development in Saskatchewan, and across the world, as part of a broader net-zero strategy.”

More information about the history of the SLOWPOKE and the decommissioning process can be found on SRC’s website at www.src.sk.ca/slowpoke.

 

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