The Canadian legacy of Nobel Prize-winning physicist Bertram Brockhouse is in danger of being wiped out. The lack of a government-planned replacement of the National Research Universal reactor at Chalk River not only hinders the research of hundreds of Canadian and international scientists but weakens Canada's economic development with the loss of an important research tool.
The impact of the Chalk River shutdown goes well beyond the isotope shortage crisis, serious as that is. It threatens Canada's industrial and scientific competitiveness. This is because the NRU is a multipurpose facility that supports science and industry in three distinct areas: It's a global producer of isotopes for applications in medicine and industry; its core provides a test environment for fuels and components for nuclear power technologies; and it supplies neutrons for the Canadian Neutron Beam Centre for materials research across a host of scientific disciplines.
At least 19 of the G20 countries have some kind of national research laboratory in nuclear science, and some produce radioactive isotopes in limited quantities. But only a few countries have reactors with the high flux of neutrons produced in the nuclear fission process that can be used to produce beams of neutrons. Every sector of the economy - including aerospace, automotive and manufacturing, as well as Canada's four priority areas: energy, environment, health and communications - benefits from the application of neutron scattering, pioneered in part by Prof. Brockhouse at Chalk River in the 1950s and 60s.
The importance of this tool has been recognized around the world. By late 2008, the new Opal reactor at the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organization was up and running. And just this spring, the site for a new European neutron source was selected in Lund, Sweden. Even so, the demand for research time at these labs is increasing faster than supply. Without Canada's NRU, the global situation will only worsen.
Canada is a leader in the field of neutron beams, and our researchers maintain an international reputation for innovation. And neutron instruments developed here have been replicated worldwide.
The Canadian Institute for Neutron Scattering represents academics and industry researchers who, until recently, routinely visited the Neutron Beam Centre at Chalk River. But without the NRU or its replacement, many of those people will move their research to the U.S., Europe or Asia.
But there is hope for Canada, because the CINS scientists saw this crisis coming and prepared a vision plan: a new centrepiece of material research with neutrons called the Canadian Neutron Centre. After consulting more than 100 scientists from universities, industry and the National Research Council, they have outlined the technical and scientific requirements for a world-class multipurpose facility that fully meets the three missions of the NRU reactor and would be a vital part of Canada's infrastructure for science and industry.
The model that the NRU set for the world was flexibility. At the time it was built, the applications of its technology - such as medical isotopes, or engineering stress scanning for the aircraft industry using neutron beams - were not even dreamt of.
The Canadian Neutron Centre would be similar, built around a new high-flux reactor with associated laboratories, offices and meeting spaces where students, academics and industrial researchers can meet, perform experiments and exchange ideas. All of its missions are knowledge-intensive endeavours that will enhance Canadian innovation and the competitiveness of Canadian science and industry.
Over a 50-year lifetime, the research capabilities of the CNC will reassert Canada's international leadership, retain and expand one of our national centrepieces for innovation, educate and develop skills for thousands of highly qualified people, attract highly qualified people to Canada, and support tens of thousands of individual science projects.
But the alternative is grim. Without a firm commitment to build the Canadian Neutron Centre, significant Canadian expertise and experience will be lost for good.
Thad Harroun is professor of physics at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ont.