USING A LIGHT SABRE TO SPLIT ATOMS
Scientists are heralding “a uniquely Canadian solution” to secure the world’s medical isotope supply. Nigel Lockyer, the director of TRIUMF, Canada’s national laboratory for particle and nuclear physics in Vancouver, says making isotopes through photo-fission is a promising alternative to the medicines made with weapons-grade uranium at the aging nuclear reactor in Chalk River, Ont., where half of the world’s supply of isotopes is produced. Isotopes make it possible to “see” inside the body to diagnose heart disease, locate tumours and treat cancer. Lockyer’s proposal would produce high-energy photons to split atoms. The main advantage of the “photo-fission accelerator” is that it could use natural or depleted uranium rather than the highly enriched uranium needed by existing reactors. A safety-related shutdown at the 51-year-old Chalk River reactor a year ago meant thousands of medical tests had to be cancelled due to the resulting isotope shortage. If it works, photo-fission will be a life-saving replacement to an old reactor.