Prospects considered bright for funding of Canadian Neutron Facility

Guest Contributor
October 2, 2000

Stakeholders backing the funding of the proposed Canadian Neutron Facility (CNF) are increasingly optimistic that the booming economy, a bulging federal surplus and a looming "neutron gap" will conspire towards convincing the Liberal administration that the research facility's $466-million price tag is a worthwhile investment in the future. The funding request is 20% higher than 1998 when the CNF was first proposed, reflecting inflation, and rising materials, construction and personnel costs.

The CNF is a joint initiative of Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd (AECL) and the National Research Council (NRC) on behalf of the materials science research community. Natural Resources Canada (NRCan) minister Ralph Goodale is championing the facility's funding at the Cabinet table and it's hoped that he can convince his colleagues that funding CNF makes good economic and scientific sense. Industry min-ister John Manley has already declared himself a supporter.

"Neutrons are almost entirely focused on materials research, from exploring the fundamentals of the atomic structure of materials to solving the problems of industry," says Dr John Root, program leader of the NRC's national neutron beam laboratory at Chalk River and spokesperson for the current lobbying campaign. "There are only 20 neutron laboratories in the world and Canada is unique in our culture of working with industry."

The CNF has been proposed with varying levels of intensity since 1990, when it became evident that the existing NRU research reactor would have to be replaced by 2005. It was approved but not funded in the last federal Budget (R$, April 7/00) and is considered to be the last remaining component of Canada's materials science research infrastructure, augmenting the TRIUMF facility on the campus of the Univ of British Columbia and the recently funded Canadian Light Source at the Univ of Saskatchewan.

Known generically as a neutron scattering reactor, the CNF is considered essential to the future of CANDU reactor research and the research of the materials science and engineering communities, with industrial relevance for aerospace, materials and manufacturing, surface coatings and microstructures. Its unique feature and specific attraction to many industrial sectors is a proposed cold neutron source ideal for soft materials research, nicely complimenting thermal neutrons for hard materials research. The existing NRU Chalk River ON only has the latter and it is highly energy and labour intensive.

"The Canadian effort in materials research with neutron beams is at the highest level internationally. Our current neutron community is mature, and highly regarded worldwide. This means that we possess the human capital to creatively design and build the CNF, if we do it in a timely fashion."

— Letter to Industry minister John Manley from Canadian Institute for Neutron Scattering.

Goodale recently sent a letter to a prominent member of the research community expressing his support the project, stating that he expected to submit a further proposal to Cabinet late this year "in the context of a broader plan for the management of nuclear energy issues" in his portfolio.

Goodale's statement alludes a broader concern with the state of Canada's nuclear industry, in particular AECL which has had its budget severely cut in recent years and lately has been frustrated in its attempt to secure new CANDU reactor sales. Ongoing delays in the approval of the CNF have also strained the relationship between AECL and the material science community, although they have successfully maintained a common front which appears on the verge of paying dividends. The last significant issue outstanding is which organization will actually own and operate the facility.


AECL spokesperson Iain Hastings acknowledges that the governance issue remains unresolved, but he says securing the funding must be the immediate priority.

"Get the funding first and then deal more with governance," says Hastings, adding that the government will likely look dimly on a new ownership structure running parallel to AECL.

In addition to its economic and scientific merits, the Liberal government may have other reasons to fund the CNF. Armed with a larger-than-expected annual surplus and preparing to face the electorate, a major research facility in Ontario has obvious political appeal. Liberal MPs in Ontario ridings with nuclear facilities experienced stiff competition from Reform Party candidates in the last election, and would certainly welcome the support and attention a major new facility could provide.

The political value of the CNF has not been lost on the opposition parties. New Democratic Party leader Alexa McDonough has written the PM and Goodale in support of the CNF, as has Canadian Alliance Party MP Deborah Gray. Former Reform leader Preston Manning has gone one step further, paying site visits to the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory and the Canadian Light Source. There are growing rumors that Manning may be about to assume the role of S&T critic for the Alliance, adding considerable lustre to a position that is generally ignored by politicians and media alike.


Regardless of the broad scientific and political support the CNF has attracted, it's becoming clear that delays in funding the project will cause problems within the research community down the road. Two years ago, backers insisted that quick approval was essential to avoid a so-called neutron gap - the time between the decommissioning of the aging NRU reactor and construction of the new facility. The NRU is slated to be shut down in 2005, yet it will take six years to build the CNF, and another two or three years before the instrumentation is installed and operational. NRC's Root says that will send out damaging signals to working scientists and the university research community, which will train the next generation of employees.

"For neutron beam research highly coupled to academic schedules, we need a continuity of personnel, especially if we see the CNF starting up in about 10 years," he asserts. ""If professors see a gap in 2005, they won't start students (in relevant courses) after 2001 and there will be a serious continuity problem. The current reactor is slated to shut down in 2005 and it may shut down sooner, although there is currently no engineering reason to do so."


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