Neutron quest: Canadian Chemical News

Highlights from “Neutron Quest” in the March 2018 edition of Canadian Chemical News:

Canada is quietly marking a scientific and technological milestone this spring with the final shutdown of the National Research Universal (NRU), a nuclear research reactor located on Ottawa River near the small town of Chalk River, about three hours’ drive west of the national capital. With that, the country is severing one of the world’s most durable links to the 20 century’s enthusiasm for nuclear energy, as well as a scientific tool that will be challenging to replace.

Among the most prominent innovations [at NRU] was the technique of neutron scattering, a powerful new addition to our scientific tool kit, employing beams of these uncharged particles from the core of the reactor to probe the molecular structures and dynamics of any kind of material.

The NRU reactor quickly became the centrepiece of a community that includes some 800 people in dozens of Canadian universities and government departments as well as foreign institutions in 22 other countries. At the heart of this community is the Canadian Neutron Beam Centre (CNBC), the venerable “hub” of local scientific and technical expertise that developed the neutron beam lines — the intricate laboratory equipment that surrounds the reactor — and facilitates the research conducted there.

“Neutrons are a scarce resource and I’d like us to exploit them,” says Bruce Gaulin, who heads up the Brockhouse Institute for Materials Research at McMaster University. “The irony is that Canada was a heroic player in founding the field and now we’re going to be in this situation where we could be on the sidelines completely. We’re definitely not going to be in a leadership position, but it could be worse than that. It could be that we don’t have anywhere to go.”

[In 2015]  a coalition of interested parties formed the Canadian Neutron Initiative (CNI), to establish a new, university-led framework for stewardship of Canada’s capacity for materials research with neutron beams, building on existing national and international resources. With executive leadership from the University of Saskatchewan, McMaster University, CINS, and the Canadian Nuclear Association, the CNI’s efforts accelerated in 2017 to include several forays to Ottawa for meetings with different branches of government, culminating with testimony before the finance committee’s pre-budget consultation.

The CNI has suggested a federal funding package of $24 million over the next three years and $19 million annually from 2021 to 2029. In contrast, it has been costing around $100 a year to keep the NRU reactor running, a sizeable amount that was part of the rationale for retiring the reactor. For Gaulin, those numbers make CNI look like a bargain. 

“This is on the order of $20M a year, so it’s a fifth of what they’re already paying,” he insists. “It’s not a crazy proposal; it’s not a luxury. We need this.”

[Thad Harroun, President of the Canadian Institute for Neutron Scattering] remains optimistic.

“The door’s not closed,” he says. “We just need to continue the work and continue the dialogue. The CNI is a great solution; I hope that will be acknowledged soon.”

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