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Amidst a global pandemic, TRIUMF's cyclotron operations rev up

11 May 2020

In the wake of the global COVID-19 pandemic, and as regular life has all but halted for many, work has gone on largely unchanged for TRIUMF’s cyclotron operators and the teams who perform the critical work of maintaining TRIUMF’s cyclotron systems: engineers and technicians upkeeping the various accelerator systems.

For example, in TRIUMF’s Applied Technology Group (ATG), operators, technicians, and engineers have continued to work at full capacity, using beam from three on-site medical cyclotrons (owned by TRIUMF’s industry partner BWXT) to bombard targets and produce several key isotopes for use as therapeutics and in diagnostic scans for heart disease, bone diseases, and more – procedures that are still critical for many patients as they weather the pandemic. In the face of COVID-19, these teams have continued to deliver on a major part of TRIUMF’s mandate: providing an uninterrupted flow of critical medical isotopes to patients in Canada and around the world.

“Our teams had to quickly adjust to the new work circumstances and challenges, and I am proud that our efforts ensured continuous and safe production of much-needed medical isotopes,” said Gabriel Cojocaru, Group Leader, ATG Cyclotron Operations. “These products have been a critical aspect of TRIUMF’s portfolio for many decades, and our teams look forward to continuing to support Canadians and people around the world during these trying times.”

More widely, all TRIUMF Operations units continue to contribute to medical isotope production. For instance, work is ongoing for TRIUMF’s TR-13 cyclotron operations team, who continued their critical mission of producing radioisotopes for patient treatments as part of TRIUMF’s agreement with BC Cancer. That team also continues to develop a new 18F target for the production of 18F water.

And, though social distancing measures came into effect at a critical point towards the tail-end of the annual scheduled shutdown period, operators and support teams for TRIUMF’s 520 MeV cyclotron successfully coaxed beam from the main cyclotron before midnight April 18.

“It is truly a privilege to work alongside - at a safe distance! - our many operators and support teams,” said Violeta Toma, Accelerator Operations Manager. “Bringing the cyclotron on-line in a safe and timely manner could not have been achieved without them. I am very proud of how quickly and effectively my operators adapted to the ever-changing requirements COVID 19 has brought about. Their main focus is personnel safety at all times, more so now when social distancing brings a new challenge to the table. We look forward to maintaining our high standards for providing safe, reliable, and timely beam for approved TRIUMF’s operations as we navigate the coming weeks and months.”

For over 40 years, the 520 MeV cyclotron start-up has been a recurring and celebrated milestone for the TRIUMF community. The annual shutdown, usually across December to March, allows critical repairs and replacements for critical cyclotron systems, which helps achieve the impressive uptime (>90%) that we target each year.

This year, cyclotron operation was slated to begin on April 22. However, with some hard work and ingenuity from a variety of TRIUMF teams, the schedule was moved up to April 18. In addition to future beam delivery for scientific research, the cyclotron’s activation will also open the door for production of strontium-82.

“I know I speak on behalf of the entire TRIUMF community when I say that we are very grateful to our operators, support teams, and those who have continued working on site towards bringing the 520 MeV cyclotron on-line,” said Oliver Kester, Associate Lab Director, Accelerators. “Their dedication will ensure that we can operate effectively as we return capacity for other areas of lab operation in the coming weeks and months.”

TRIUMF would like to share a big thank-you to all in our community who have continued to do their part!