Materials researchers join forces to address Canada’s neutron gap

Mark Henderson
October 21, 2020

Canadian materials researchers who depend on neutron beams to conduct their work are reviving stalled efforts to establish a university-led governance structure to confront a yawning neutron gap and stem the accelerating brain drain. While awaiting a late-November decision on a $47-million proposal to the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI), a working group of the Canadian Neutron Initiative (CNI) is forging ahead with a virtual roundtable on December 15-16 to refine a national neutron strategy leading to the creation of Neutrons Canada.

The forthcoming virtual meeting expects about 150 participants and will build upon a previous roundtable last January, in which research representatives from 16 universities discussed the best potential avenues for meeting the current and future needs of the materials research community.

“The [January] roundtable meeting of university executives from 16 institutions across Canada was an historic moment, topping off five years of work to establish a new pan-Canadian, university-led framework to govern, manage, and represent Canada’s programme and capacity for materials research with neutron beams,” says Dr. Karen Chad (PhD), chair of CNI working group and VP Research at the University of Saskatchewan.

The current environment is challenging for materials researchers that utilize neutron beams for their work on programs and projects related to economic competitiveness, a clean environment, clean growth, health and food and safety and security. The situation was already described as an emergency in 2017, prior to the closure of two key pieces of materials research infrastructure in 2018: the NRU research reactor once operated by Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd (AECL) at Chalk River, ON, and the Canadian Neutron Bean Centre (CNBC), which facilitated the work of 800 researchers at AECL and neutron facilities around the world.

“We’re hoping that by getting university leaders interested in meeting and then engaging a larger community in strategic planning, we will be able to sustain a community and engage and sustain the interest and effort which is needed to get it to the point where there’s some other solution,” says Dr. John Root (PhD), executive director of the Sylvia Fedoruk Canadian Centre for Nuclear Innovation and the former director of the CNBC. “You do need a research reactor for multiple purposes and neutrons for many things. If you’re going to go down that route it makes a lot of sense to have a domestic facility … When’s that going to happen? It’s not for 10 years anyway. In the meantime, it’s quite feasible to run a neutron beam program as a distributed set of facilities here and there. Other countries have done that.”

The CNI working group’s proposed strategy has four elements:

  1. Build on existing domestic capabilities, including full exploitation of the McMaster Nuclear Reactor (MNR), a medium-brightness neutron source;
  2. Forge partnerships with high-brightness neutron sources in other countries;
  3. Explore investment in new domestic neutron sources for the long term; and,
  4. Create a new, national governance and management framework for these activities.

The CFI funding proposal would address the first three elements, while the fourth would require a pan-Canadian, university-led entity to be called Neutrons Canada, “to manage a coherent national program … envisioned to be of the scale of a Major Research Facility (MRF) in operations and impact”.

Furthering progress towards providing researchers access to a neutron source is a parallel proposal to develop a Compact Accelerator-based Neutron Source (CANS) – a smaller, lower-cost alternative to reactor-generated neutrons. A feasibility study for a prototype costing approximately $100 million is currently being developed by the University of Windsor.

AECL’s NRU was a major science facility launched in 1957. It underpinned a remarkable period of neutron-based R&D lasting several decades. In the 2010s, however, federal agencies withdrew from the field. AECL was restructured with most of its operations transferred to the industry-led Canadian Nuclear Laboratories. Concurrently, responsibility for CNBC was shifted back and forth between AECL and the National Research Council (NRC). CNBC was ultimately shuttered by the latter when its focus was re-directed towards industry under then-president John McDougall, and it was decided that managing a neutron beam facility for university access was not aligned with its new mission.

A final report on the CNBC’s performance and impact concluded that it “facilitated highly valued research outcomes”, was considered “Canada’s most valuable research asset” internationally and was an “essential research tool for Canada’s manufacturing base."

“There were a number of reasons why federal agencies faded out of the picture and were not likely to come back ... We were in a holding pattern there until 2018,” says Root. “Many Canadians already had momentum going in other [foreign] facilities, but there has been a drop-off. A recent survey by the Canadian Institute for Neutron Scattering [shows that] heavy users [of neutron beams] are not so bad off … but the casual users have dropped off really fast. There’s no home for them to bring them in, be patient and show them how to use neutrons. That whole mechanism is now absent and they’re getting hit pretty hard.”

Researchers' use of foreign facilities was exemplified by CFI-enabled access to the Spallation Neutron Source at the massive Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Oak Ridge TN. That arrangement ended in 2018 - the same year that the NRU was shut down - exacerbating the sudden loss of neutron beam facilities available to the materials research community.

At this point, it’s difficult to determine when and how the federal government may respond to the needs of the materials research community. In 2017 and 2018, CNI submitted a funding recommendation to the House of Commons Finance Committee, asking for $24 million over three years and $19 million a year between 2021 and 2029 to buy beam time at foreign facilities and to upgrade the small, medium-flux nuclear reactor at McMaster University. In both cases, Roots says the committee endorsed the idea, but the money was not allocated in the corresponding federal budgets.

“The pushback from the bureaucracy was that [the government is] already giving $800 million for science, go and get it out of one of the existing programs. But there were no programs for an ongoing operation,” he says. “What the neutron scattering community said was, ‘let’s apply to the CFI program as one step in the right direction’”.

The CNI did not prepare a pre-Budget submission for the next federal Budget, opting instead to focus on addressing the governance issue which Root says is “the fundamental gap” and most immediate challenge.


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