Neil Alexander
Neil Alexander

The nuclear options

For Neil Alexander, Saskatchewan is the land of opportunity for all things nuclear, whether it is in medicine, agriculture, advanced detection equipment or getting in on the first floor of small modular nuclear reactor (SMR) development.

"Saskatchewan is actually quite an attractive potential ‘early mover' for SMR companies," said the executive director of the Sylvia Fedoruk Canadian Centre for Nuclear Innovation at the University of Saskatchewan. "We've got a bit of effort to put in to make a breakthrough in that field, but it's certainly something that could help create a more prosperous province."

At the centre, which he joined July 1, 2014, part of Alexander's mission is to lead efforts to create suitable infrastructure, and the professional and knowledge base should Saskatchewan decide to actively pursue nuclear opportunities.

"Our job isn't to promote the nuclear industry, it's to create the capability to have one, should the province decide it wants one," he said. "We provide information about it so good decisions can be made. It's quite important to us for people to understand the distinction between providing information about something and promoting it."

To get accurate and up-todate information, the Fedoruk Centre funds research on nuclear technologies and issues. One of its fi rst projects was the Saskatchewan Nuclear Attitudes Study, whose results were released in May of last year. Alexander said one of the more intriguing fi ndings from the study was that Saskatchewan people appear to be far less polarized and much more accepting of nuclear technologies than popular perception might indicate.

"What appears to have happened on previous occasions is that a very small number of people shouted very loudly and I would argue that's not democracy at work," he said. "To make good decisions we need future discussions to be rational, informed and fact-based rather than shouting matches where the prize goes to the loudest person no matter how poorly informed they are."

One of the challenges is to get people to think beyond nuclear power to other fields and applications, of which there are many.

From sterilization of medical equipment to scanners that look through welds to jet engine turbine fans, nuclear technology helps keeps people safe, buildings standing and planes in the air, he explained.

"We couldn't safely run our modern society without the byproducts of the nuclear industry and applications of nuclear science. It is important that people realize these benefi ts as well as the contributions that the nuclear power industry makes to abating smog, avoiding acid rain, preventing the numerous deaths that take place as a result of the pollutants that arise from fossil fuels."

Although Alexander emphasized it will be up to the province to decide how or if to pursue nuclear power generation, he made no secret of how he came to his own positive position on the subject.

"It's a way of thinking. I have a very questioning mind; I very rarely take anything I'm told as truth until I've found some evidence that confi rms it."

Alexander grew up in several communities around England before heading to the University of Birmingham for his formal training in materials science. His first jobs were in first-world energy efficiency and renewable energies. He joked that like a "true climate warrior," he does not own a car, commuting on foot, even in winter, to his office on campus. A bicycle leaning against his office wall awaits warmer days.

Before moving to Saskatoon, Alexander worked as part of a group working on solar, wind and other renewables including using garbage as fuel, both to generate energy and as a method of recycling.

"As part of that experience I realized we could do the best we could with efficiency and we could do the best we could with renewables, but there was still going to be a pretty large gap," he said. "Th e only way I could see filling it is with nuclear."

He conceded nuclear power has a bad image, but insists it is the "safest of the power generation industries" by a wide margin.

"Nuclear is about four times safer than wind power, about 11 times safer than solar, something like 35 times safer than hydro, and safer than gas and coal by orders of magnitude," he said. "And the question always comes back to ‘does that include the major accidents?' and yes, it does."

Alexander sees great opportunities for Saskatchewan if it jumps in as a "first adopter" in research about and manufacturing of SMRs. Stringent industry standards for manufacturing facilities demand an extremely high-quality supply chain and highly trained, specialized staff. This means significant investment fl owing into the province and benefits for the country, for example, to supply power to remote Canadian communities.

For now, nuclear power is a small part of the Fedoruk Centre's portfolio as a funding agency. Some projects are looking at advanced materials for use in nuclear reactors but more than half of the funding to date has been committed to nuclear medicine research such as improved imaging techniques and advanced diagnostic tools. Th e balance has been invested in investigations of public opinion and environment, as well as fusion power and plasma research.

"We're interested in encouraging pools of capability to develop, to give us a reasonable broad-based understanding of nuclear issues," Alexander said.

Researchers are encouraged to leverage Fedoruk Centre resources by seeking matching money from industry and other funding agencies. "Commitments from industry give us confidence that the knowledge developed will be used for the good of mankind and the students that are trained will have skills that will make them attractive to employers," Alexander said.

Another finding from the nuclear attitudes survey showed people felt they were not well enough informed on nuclear issues. The Fedoruk Centre is keen to address this both with its current communications efforts and with further research.

"What we'd like to fi nd out is what information they feel they need to be well informed, and then work out how to make it available to them," Alexander said.

He is making a start at sharing information by giving a presentation April 28 at Woods Ale House entitled Dihydrogen Monoxide, Bananas and the Role of Bad Science in Decision Making as part of the Tox on Tap series of public talks.

Another facet of Alexander's work is focused on the U of S research community. He is holding meetings with scientists to discuss their work and explore possible applications for nuclear science.

"One of the areas we're particularly excited about the potential for is agricultural research, specifi cally plant research. Because the university here is obviously a world leader in that fi eld and we've got a world-leading capability in the cyclotron, we're matching those two areas together."

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