Thousands of people visit the Chalk River nuclear site

Canadian Nuclear Laboratories in Chalk River, Ont., opened on Saturday to allow the public a rare peek inside their facilities.

More than 3,000 people attended CNL’s first Open House in five years. Normally the public is not allowed to visit due to the sensitive materials on site.

“The turnout we’re seeing for this event is indicative of people’s pent-up desire to see what’s going on,” said Joe McBrearty, president and CEO of Canadian Nuclear Laboratories.

The location is under tight security, with visitors having to pass through a checkpoint before traveling a road of several kilometers before reaching the facilities. Armored vehicles, armed guards, and security checkpoints dot the property.

“It’s a nuclear site and it’s not easy to get to a nuclear site in the country or anywhere in the world,” said Fred Dermarkar, president of Atomic Energy of Canada Limited, the federal entity that owns the site.

“I think the general public generally doesn’t understand the magnitude of what’s going on,” Dermarkar says. “And that’s why it’s so important for them to have that kind of opportunity to come and see it firsthand.”

One of the goals of the open house was to dispel any notions the public might have of nuclear sites in movies and TV shows. Visions of a clumsy Homer Simpson in front of a nuclear control panel just don’t do CNL justice.

For example, cancer research, known as targeted alpha therapy, is conducted at the facility.

“It’s a form of cancer treatment where we administer a drug to the patient,” explains radiochemical technologist Randy Perron. “It contains a radioactive isotope, it emits an alpha particle. And it selectively targets cancer cells and leaves healthy cells alone.”

CNL is also working with companies like Global First Power to develop small nuclear reactors that can connect off-grid communities.

“Our plan is to build this reactor before the end of this decade,” Eric McGoey, director of engagement and communications at Global First Power told CTV News Ottawa. “We hope to generate electricity here at the Chalk River site.”

“That would be five megawatts of electricity. That’s enough for a town of about 5,000 people.”

The site is now over 70 years old and has hosted decades of nuclear research. A sixth of the 2,800 workforce is dedicated to the safe demolition of old contaminated buildings.

The CNL site at Chalk River is one of five sites in Canada. Dermarkar hopes that the public will leave the tour knowing that their community members, who work at the site, have the ability to solve global energy, environment and health care issues.

“I think this site has a huge role to play in helping to propel Canada and the world forward in terms of addressing these issues.”

And sometimes you just don’t see that when you’re driving down the highway. 17 and all there is is a traffic light,” adds McBrearty.