Canadian Neutron Initiative Roundtable: Towards a National Neutron Strategy
By: Johnny Kung
17 Mar, 2021
March 17, 2021
Innovation in the study, design and characterization of materials is key to advances in a range of industries and applications, from energy and manufacturing to computing and healthcare. One of the indispensable tools for studying materials are neutron beams. While Canadian scientists conducted a lot of the pioneering work on the use of neutrons in research and applications, there is now an urgent need for Canada to develop a strategy to maintain access to neutron beams. This is due to the closure of Canada’s primary neutron source, the National Research Universal (NRU) reactor at Chalk River Laboratories, in 2018 and the subsequent winddown of the national coordinating organization and user facility, the Canadian Neutron Beam Centre (CNBC), as well as the expiration of Canada’s participation at the Spallation Neutron Source in the United States.
to rebuild Canadian capacity for research with neutron beams. On December 15-16, 2020, the CNI working group, in partnership with CIFAR, held a virtual roundtable to seek input on key elements of the strategy from a range of stakeholders, including university executives, policy experts, leaders of domestic and international major research infrastructure (including neutron facilities), representatives from government agencies and funders, leaders of the nuclear industry, and researchers, including members of CIFAR’s Quantum Materials program. A detailed on the outcomes of the roundtable is available from the CNI; this brief highlights several key messages from the conversation.
Key Insights and Priorities
Forging new partnerships with international neutron facilities will provide Canadian researchers with some access to neutron beams in the near term, allowing for a community of neutron users to be maintained. Some potential partner facilities would require Canada to provide funds towards operations. In-kind contributions are also a valuable means of leveraging beam time, as they provide additional benefits:
By contributing instruments, Canada can better maintain expertise in the development of technology for neutron instruments, and engage industry in commercializing spin-off technologies.
A small team of staff stationed at international facilities could help facilitate projects by Canadian researchers, while contributing to the facilities’ operation and planning to ensure it is responsive to the needs of Canadian research.
Neutron sources within Canada, even if they are of lower neutron flux (or “brightness”), are important for retaining some level of expertise and technical know-how that will be critical to enabling Canada to participate in international facilities. In addition to doing important science, these sources will give Canadian researchers, including students, hands-on training and experience. The ongoing and planned development of the neutron beam lab at the McMaster Nuclear Reactor will allow for the full exploitation of that particular neutron source and fulfill this crucial role.
Local facilities are also important for industry users, many of whom have small-scale projects that require rapid turn-around. Certain applications with sovereignty or security implications, including some by the government, military, aerospace or nuclear industries, may also not be suitably conducted at foreign facilities.
Research into new types of neutron sources, such as compact accelerator-based (rather than nuclear reactor-based) sources, may allow for new, lower cost facilities to be built in Canada. However, these sources will not replace high brightness neutron sources needed for much research and development, especially in quantum materials, nor do they meet certain needs of the nuclear industry provided by reactors, such as in-core irradiation for materials testing and isotope production. With the globally decreasing availability of neutron sources due to the decommissioning of older facilities, competition for beam time will continue to exacerbate. It may ultimately be necessary to construct high brightness sources in Canada (or for Canada to contribute to their construction elsewhere) to ensure access for Canadian researchers and add to the global supply of neutrons.
A national coordinating organization that operates within a sustainable, credible and representative governance framework will play an important role in Canada’s national neutron strategy, by taking the lead in obtaining operation funds, enter into agreements with international facilities and coordinate participation by Canadian researchers there, conduct long-range planning and priority setting, and build consensus among the community of researchers, enabling this community to speak to government and funders with one voice.
Lessons could be learned from other scientific fields that rely on large-scale, internationally collaborative research infrastructure, such as astronomy, particle physics and the synchrotron community.
In formulating a national neutron strategy, equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) will need to be incorporated from the outset and at a high level. Given the underrepresentation in science (particularly physics) of women, racialized and Indigenous groups, and persons with disability, a national strategy should pursue mechanisms to increase their representation so that the field can benefit from the ideas and potential of everyone.
Because research at neutron facilities often require extensive travel, underrepresented groups, as well as young investigators, are further disadvantaged by factors such as the burden of care duties and lack of resources. Measures such as additional support, remote working and simulation tools should be explored.
If (or when) new neutron sources were to be built in Canada, the scientific community needs to engage with local and Indigenous communities early and meaningfully. Lessons (both positive and negative) could be learned from other scientific infrastructure projects, such as ground-based telescopes, or the roadmapping work being done for small modular nuclear reactors by Natural Resources Canada.
Speakers and Facilitators
Ken Andersen, Director, Neutron Technologies Division, Oak Ridge National Laboratory
CIFAR is a registered charitable organization supported by the governments of Canada, Alberta and Quebec, as well as foundations, individuals, corporations and Canadian and international partner organizations.