The world’s oldest major research reactor closes next year, but Canadian scientists are looking to the future through the Canadian Neutron Initiative, according to Science Magazine on Sept 21.
Some scientists worry this body of talent and experience is all too likely to disperse permanently after next year’s NRU shutdown, which could leave many researchers and organizations at an important crossroads. And not just academic scientists: the NRU is also prized by an industrial clientele, such as car-engine manufacturers, who use the beams to check for potentially catastrophic stresses deep inside prototypes. Some of this activity already takes place at a much smaller research reactor, which is only 2 years younger than the NRU, maintained by McMaster University. However, with just a fraction of the power put out by the NRU, this facility will not be able to take up this displaced research traffic. Users will be forced to look further afield, to places such as the Spallation Neutron Source, the flagship U.S. neutron beam facility at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. As outsiders, however, finding time at these places is bound to be challenging. Some also worry about the experimental design expertise that will be lost along with the NRU.
In February executives of the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon and McMaster University in Hamilton, publicly launched the Canadian Neutron Initiative to lobby the federal government for a 10-year, CA$200 million commitment, a figure that sounds large but pales in comparison to the CA$100 million the government spends annually to keep the reactor running. Root would like to see this funding open up beam time at other neutron sources around the world, as well as maintain a critical amount of neutron beam research within Canada until another large-scale neutron source might be built.
“You need an organization somewhere that’s providing central support and stewardship for a national program,” says John Root, director of the Canadian Neutron Beam Centre in Chalk River, Ontario, which relies on the 60-year-old reactor. “If you don’t have this central hub, you don’t really have a national program. You have somebody sending checks to laboratories in the United States or Europe, and Canadian individual researchers are on their own.”