Canada is experiencing a neutron shortage — here's why that matters

An assistant professor at the University of Windsor says the shut down an Ontario nuclear research reactor has caused a shortage of neutrons needed to develop groundbreaking technology.

The National Research Universal Reactor — or NRU — in Chalk River, Ont. went dark at the end of March

University of Windsor assistant professor Drew Marquardt says Canada's scientific legacy could suffer because the National Research Universal Reactor has been shut down. (Dale Molnar/CBC)

An assistant professor at the University of Windsor says the shut down of an Ontario nuclear research reactor has caused a shortage of neutrons needed to develop groundbreaking technology.

The National Research Universal Reactor — or NRU — in Chalk River, Ont. went dark at the end of March. The facility was opened in 1957 and acted as a training ground for generations of scientists who helped Canada become a leader in neutron and isotope research.

Now biochemistry professor Drew Marquardt said that legacy and the type of discoveries that helped create it might be at risk.

"If we want the next generation of cellphones or the next generation of drug delivery, we need the proper tools in order to investigate their structures and understand how they work," he explained. 

Drew Marquardt, a University of Windsor professor and researcher, is adding his voice to the growing chorus opposed to the closing of the Chalk River nuclear reactor. 7:43

Marquardt estimated at least 30 academic institutions in Canada relied on the NRU, along with countless industries.

Why are neutrons needed?

Neutrons — subatomic particles with no electric charge — allow researchers to examine materials at the atomic level.

"You can take a biological sample and measure it with neutrons and not have destroyed your bacteria or our model membrane where as if you were to use x-rays, so light, those high intensities will destroy your sample," said the professor.

A look inside the National Research Universal reactor's control room at Chalk River Labs 0:48

Marquardt added the NRU was staffed by experienced researchers who could help people with less experience conduct their experiments. He fears those talented researchers could now leave Canada.

"The people who are going to suffer are the scientists who aren't experts in the field but really need the tools," he said. "Without a plan in place to keep these expertise it will really put a strain on researchers that don't rely on neutrons on a daily basis."

Closest neutron source is 10 hours away

The closing of NRU means there are only two major neutron sources in North America, according to Marquardt — the closest to Windsor is in Tennessee, a 10-hour drive away.

He said that means traveling to complete scientific studies and it will be more expensive and more complicated as it now includes crossing an international border. Not to mention the strain on the two neutron sources will now be higher than ever.

Canadian Nuclear Laboratories CEO Mark Lesinski stands in the materials testing lab at the Chalk River site. "We do believe there's a place for Chalk River Nuclear Labs in the world again." (Sarah Sears/CBC News)

Marquardt has been working with a group called the Canadian Neutron Initiative (CNI) to supply the government with solutions to the loss of NRU.

"I'm really hoping that some of the aspects of the CNI will be adopted and prevent Canada from losing a legacy of being a leader in the field for the last 70 years," he said.