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CAUT Bulletin Archives

October 1996

Atomic Energy of Canada - An Institution Under Attack

Paul Vincett
The recent federal budget cuts to Atomic Energy of Canada Limited (AECL) removed funding for essentially all the basic science facilities at AECL's Chalk River Laboratories and for fusion research, notably at the Centre canadien de fusion magnétique.

Earlier cuts to NSERC appear likely to force the closure of the Saskatchewan Accelerator Laboratory. As well all AECL basic nuclear physics, accelerator physics, environmental science, condensed matter science and neutron scattering science facilities are scheduled for closure.

The sudden closing of so many of Canada's premier scientific facilities will have a major negative impact on the health of Canadian science and eventually on the Canadian economy. If we add in the looming university infrastructure problem, it is clear that Canada's entire basic science enterprise is threatened. More than 250 individual letters from eminent scientists around the world poured in to the government in late 1995, when the possibility of these closures became known.

Materials research with neutron beams

The program on condensed matter science that has been funded by AECL is centred on $20 million of experimental facilities attached to the face of the NRU reactor at Chalk River Laboratories. Its annual cost is less than 10 per cent of the value of the equipment. The program exists because of the pioneering development of the neutron scattering technique by 1994 Nobel Laureate Bert Brockhouse at Chalk River Laboratories. The program is closely linked to AECL's CANDU program since it shares the same research reactor.

The neutron scattering program at Chalk River has received excellent reviews from international committees of experts. The programs must be of a critical size to retain the neutron technology for Canada. Canadians need access to the neutron scattering facilities at the NRU reactor in order to develop high- tech materials for industries to create jobs now and in the future.

Nuclear Science -- the TASCC facilit

The Tandem Accelerator Superconducting Cyclotron (TASCC) facility at Chalk River is Canada's newest, most versatile high- energy accelerator complex. It is the only facility in the country that produces beams of "heavy ions" -- charged atoms of virtually any element -- and it is one of the best in the world. It represents $65 to $75 million in capital investment.

It is now operating at the peak of competitiveness to serve a strong resident research team, more than 100 visiting scientists each year and many graduate students from Canada and abroad. Staff, research associates and students from Laval, Laurentian, Manitoba, McGill, McMaster, Montréal, Queen's, Ottawa, Toronto, UBC, Calgary and Waterloo have used the TASCC facilities recently. Numerous university graduates have received graduate degrees for TASCC-based research.

The basic research programs span nuclear, atomic, materials and environmental science, are internationally peer reviewed, and widely regarded as world leading. There are well established applied programs, particularly for the nuclear and aerospace industries, and a rapidly growing base of paying customers. TASCC is a successful government/university/industry partnership already in place. Its continued operation will require approximately $5.5 million per year in addition to the projected $1 million from commercial revenue.

Centre canadien de fusion magnétique

The Centre canadien de fusion magnétique (CCFM) operates the Tokomak de Varennes fusion research facility as Canada's contribution to the international development of this promising and environmentally benign future energy source.

The CCFM is an excellent example of a long term partnership with universities and governments and with a good participation of the private sector, for the expeditious development of shorter term spin-offs in addition to its core mandate to develop a vitally important future energy technology. CCFM has demonstrated a high ratio of scientific results per federal dollar spent and enjoys an excellent international scientific reputation built up over many years.

Although the ultimate aim of fusion is clearly in the long term, CCFM has already delivered very significant short term benefits to Canadian industry, and this is well documented. Other important features of CCFM are its international peer review mechanism, its strong collaborative links, and its regular exchanges with the major developed countries.

Saskatchewan Accelerator Laboratory SAL is a world-class centre for subatomic physics research. Researchers and their students, from more than 25 institutions around the world have experiments approved for running at SAL.

In spite of uniformly excellent peer reviews from NSERC (the latest in December of 1995) cuts to NSERC itself have forced NSERC to reduce SAL's operating funding from $2.8 million to $2 million for the next two years and to zero after that. Shutting SAL down in 1998 will leave important physics undone and will cause significant damage to the local economy.

The peer review committee recognized that there is at least five years of excellent physics still to be done at SAL. A $1.5 million electron scattering spectrometer has just been commissioned. The two-year shut down scenario means the investment in this spectrometer, as well as the newly upgraded accelerator, is lost. The two-year funding horizon could also destroy an opportunity to use the expertise and hardware at SAL to build a cost-effective, world-class, third-generation synchrotron source for Canada.

Dr. Paul Vincett is the Past President of the Canadian Association of Physicists.