McMaster University in Canada is home to a suite of nuclear research facilities. Credit: McMaster University. - Photo: 2023

Advancing Nuclear Research: Countering Cancer and Climate Change

United Nations Academic Impact (UNAI)

UNITED NATIONS | 30 November 2023 (IDN) — Nuclear research is driving innovation in science, technology, medicine, and clean energy for the benefit of communities around the globe. The Nuclear Technology Review 2022 issued  by the Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency, already underlined that “the use of nuclear energy beyond electricity production is enjoying unprecedented momentum worldwide” and that “global interest in research reactors continued to grow.” The report also highlighted the relevance of isotope-based theranostics in cancer management, and the many “therapeutic applications in nuclear medicine.”

McMaster University, a member institution of the United Nations Academic Impact (UNAI) in Canada, is home to a suite of nuclear research facilities anchored by the McMaster Nuclear Reactor (MNR). This research reactor provides neutrons for scientific research and medical isotope production. Nuclear research and education institutions have a critical role to play in finding solutions to pressing global challenges—including the urgent need for safe and reliable clean energy, the growing demand for radiation-based cancer therapies, and the discovery of new materials with applications in research, technology, and medicine.

Health and Wellbeing

Radiation-based technologies are used worldwide to diagnose and treat diseases and sterilize medical equipment. The need for new nuclear medicines has grown significantly over recent years, with an estimated 40 million nuclear medicine procedures performed yearly and the demand for radioisotopes increasing to 5% annually. McMaster University is uniquely positioned to help meet this growing demand and, in doing so, contribute to Sustainable Development Goal 3: Good Health and Well-Being. On that note, nuclear medicine has been at the core of McMaster’s nuclear research profile for decades.

Being a world-leading supplier of two medical isotopes—Iodine-125 and Holmium-166—staff at the McMaster Nuclear Reactor produce isotopes that treat approximately 70,000 cancer patients annually. The isotopes are irradiated inside the reactor’s core, then processed and packaged for shipment to patients in Canada and countries around the globe. Medical isotopes have varying lifespans, with some lasting only a few days before they start to decay and become unusable. Often, medical isotopes must be produced and transported to the patient within a short timeframe—a process this Canadian university has honed over the years.

As the world looks toward a low-carbon future, there is an urgent need for clean energy solutions. Experts at McMaster University are paving a path for a new class of nuclear reactors that can potentially transform clean energy production – the Small Modular Reactor (SMR). This type of reactor functions like a larger one but at a fraction of the size, providing clean, safe, and reliable energy powered by nuclear fission. They are ideal for installation in remote communities and on industrial sites, with their components pre-manufactured and then installed on-site, being more cost- and time-effective than custom-building a nuclear reactor for a particular location.

In 2020, the Canadian government released its SMR Action Plan, recognizing the potential benefits of SMRs. As part of the Plan, McMaster University will work to advance SMR research, education, and training at the university and explore the potential of hosting an SMR on- or off-campus. The university’s SMR vision focuses on showing the significant impact this technology can have on communities needing clean power. McMaster is currently conducting a feasibility study, in consultation with a wide range of stakeholders, including Indigenous communities, to investigate the environmental, economic, and social effects of SMRs. 

Education and Technology

McMaster University’s experts spearhead research and education programs in SMR technology validation, nuclear safety, waste reduction, nuclear security, site monitoring, and integrated urban energy systems. The institution is also home to the Small Modular Advanced Reactor Training Program, designed to train the next generation of SMR research, safety, and deployment leaders, and has a crucial role in developing energy solutions. Moreover, the MNR provides researchers with neutrons and positrons for various applications, including materials characterization and scattering techniques. 

Researchers use McMaster University’s nuclear facilities to study and develop various materials. Once researchers have designed a potentially advanced material, they need to characterize it at the atomic level to check its structure, the presence of irregularities, or the size of defects on its surface. Neutrons are unique in their ability to penetrate deep into dense materials like metals, making it possible to visualize the interior of an object without physically damaging it. The institution’s facilities are advancing research and discovery of new superconductors, micro-structured steels, biomaterials, wearable electronics, medical devices, photonic structures, and more.

Moreover, in support of the future of materials science, McMaster University and the University of Saskatchewan are leading Neutrons Canada – a new not-for-profit research organization designed to govern, manage and represent Canada’s infrastructure program for research and development with neutron beams. The program will facilitate national and international partnerships that secure access to world-leading neutron laboratories and enhance the operation of Canada’s domestic neutron beam facilities – enabling scientists to advance materials research and address challenges such as climate change, a clean economy, safety, security, and health. 

For over six decades, McMaster University has harnessed the power of nuclear science to drive knowledge creation, medical isotope production, and tremendous economic, health, and social benefits. Most importantly, McMaster is furthering Sustainable Development Goal 4: Quality Education and building the next generation of nuclear experts to help create a brighter world and generate solutions to current and future global challenges. The university is also forging partnerships with the nuclear industry and education leaders to facilitate experiential learning programs for undergraduate and graduate students pursuing careers in nuclear science. 

“As Canada’s Nuclear University, McMaster is committed to advancing cutting-edge nuclear research and educational opportunities that benefit our local, national and global communities. Our world-class nuclear research facilities and experts are driving innovation in nuclear medicine, clean energy and advanced materials to support the Sustainable Development Goals and secure a healthier, more sustainable world for all,” says David Farrar, President of McMaster University. [IDN-InDepthNews]

Photo: McMaster University in Canada is home to a suite of nuclear research facilities. Credit: McMaster University.

IDN is the flagship agency of the Non-profit International Press Syndicate

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