An InFORMal Gathering – Part 2

After my tour at the University of Ottawa, the day continued with a tour of the Radiation Protection Bureau facilities over at Health Canada on the south side of the city. After clearing through security, Drs. Jean-Francois Mercier and Michael Cooke, showed Cole and I around the lab spaces that are used by the Canadian Radiological Monitoring Network and where InFORM samples are run.

Besides their role in the InFORM project, I had little knowledge of what exactly the Radiation Protection Bureau does. It turns out they do quite a lot, from evaluating the safety of workers who are exposed to radiation (from X-ray technicians at the dentist to power plants), working with federal organizations like the Canadian Border Security Administration to determine the safety of goods and food products imported to Canada, and maintaining and evaluating the data collected on the network of sensors that monitor for atmospheric radiation across all of Canada.

The Canadian network of radiological monitoring stations.
The Canadian network of radiological monitoring stations.

The largest of these sensor networks is the fixed point network that reports data every 15 minutes from its locations in major Canadian communities in each province and territory. Sensors are more densely spaced around the six major Canadian nuclear facilities and ports where nuclear vessels may berth in the event of a nuclear emergency.

Did you know that following the Fukushima disaster the plume was first measured in Canada at Sidney, BC and St John’s, NL only one day apart? It turns out that the atmospheric plume separated into two arms. One arm came up from the south and triggered the monitoring stations in those communities. The other arm came over the arctic and was measured in Yellowknife, NT and Resolute,NU  in the following days.

Canada also maintains four stations as a contribution to the United Nations Comprehensive nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). The whole network of 80 stations around the globe monitor for atmospheric radionuclides that would provide evidence of a nuclear weapons test. Samples from this network are measured on site. The last network is the Canadian Radiological Monitoring Network (CRMN) which uses similar sample collection methods to the CTBT network, but with such a wide distribution, all weekly samples are sent back to Ottawa for analysis. With all that mail coming and going, I wonder if that is why this arm of Health Canada was located next to the Canada Post depot? 😉

Fun fact: There are only a handful of facilities around the world that produce the isotopes used in the medical sciences. The largest producer of these radionuclides is located at Chalk River Nuclear Laboratories about 180 km northwest of Ottawa. Since medical patients undergoing radiation therapy require a certain dose for treatment to be effective, the isotopes used are relatively short-lived (less than 3 days). This makes managing the global supply necessarily tightly coupled to demand. The CTBT stations are sensitive enough to detect these production changes in near real-time. Who knew?!

The tour continued with where the InFORM project fits into the the rest of the monitoring at the Radiation Protection Bureau. Drs. Mercier and Cooke showed us to the lab where most of the gamma spectrometers are located. There are four of these robots around the perimeter of the lab and a few other gamma spectrometers that aren’t automated. A bookshelf in the corner is piled high with spectrometer parts from a dozen other older instruments. The center of the room has desks for the computers that operate and store all the data. The space was more than adequate, but the bits of pealing paint on the walls showed the age of the building and provided a contrast to the shiny and new labs at the University of Ottawa which opened just two years ago.

It just so happened that InFORM salmon samples were being run while I was visiting. It was my first chance to physically see the biotic samples so I was a bit excited. I know it’s a hunk of salmon that looks astonishingly similar to what I occasionally eat for dinner, but still, it was like I was connecting with a part of the project that I had previously only read and heard about.

Technician, Bonnie Todd, was wrapping up another sample to go onto the spectrometer as we arrived and notified us that the robot was about to change things over. Here’s the compressed version of the 5 minutes that it takes for the robot to change out samples.

All of InFORM samples are run on this one machine and it is calibrated multiple times each month to ensure accuracy. While InFORM samples are stored frozen, they thaw while on the detector, so only a few are placed on the robot at a time and tissue samples are not run over the weekend.

You may have noticed the large ziplocs of white powder in the queue for analysis. Those are pulverized shell from oysters and other molluscs that are being prepared. The Health Canada team was excited for these samples because it gave them opportunity to use their new crusher which can take brussel sprout sized materials and reduce them to a flour-like powder.

Dr. Mercier showing off the before and after of a rock sample that has gone through the crusher.
Dr. Mercier showing off the before and after of a rock sample that has gone through the crusher.

This tool is more than just a toy. For any given sample to be used in the gamma spectrometer, it is important for it to be well mixed, or homogeneous. If the sample is made more homogeneous, it will more easily fit into the standard sample containers and it will result in a more accurate measurement of the radioactivity. Dr. Cooke remarked with a smile that “you never retire from the Radiation Protection Bureau, you just get crushed.” Got to love scientist humor!

I really enjoyed my hours at the Radiation Protection Bureau and it helped me appreciate the work that this dedicated team does to ensure the health and safety of all Canadians.

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