OVERVIEW OF THE CENTER
The NCNR is one of the seven laboratories1 of NIST. The mission of NCNR is to provide facilities, access, and assistance to members of the U.S. scientific and industrial communities interested in using neutrons for their research. It has been in operation for more than 50 years and has earned a well-deserved reputation as one of the best organizations of its kind in the world.
The NCNR has an annual budget of approximately $50 million, which can be compared to the total NIST annual budget of roughly $1.2 billion in fiscal year 2018. It has a total staff of 217, of which 103 are in condensed matter science, 44 in facilities and operations, 36 in construction, and 34 in safety and administration. There are 5 affiliated technical staff/instrument scientists per instrument to serve/collaborate with users. In addition, NCNR scientists have active research programs of their own. For comparison, the world’s largest neutron user facility, the Institute Laue-Langevin (ILL) in Grenoble, France, requires on average two more staff—7 technical staff per instrument—for its operations.
In 2017, the reactor provided neutrons for 228 days of operation at full power with 98 percent reliability to 29 instruments for a total of 2,769 research participants. Among high-performance neutron sources, the NCNR has consistently led the United States in user instrument days in the past decade.2 The process for obtaining instrument time includes twice-yearly calls for proposals. In 2017, 661 proposals requesting 3,518 days of beam/instrument time were received. About one-third of the proposals were successful, and 1,391 days of instrument time were allocated. About 20 percent of users at NCNR are foreign scientists.
An important portion of the NCNR portfolio is the Center for High Resolution Neutron Scattering (CHNRS), which is jointly funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and NIST. The partnership agreement for CHNRS was renewed for 5 years in 2015. Last year, CHNRS received 210 proposals for 1,235 days and awarded, on a competitive basis, 90 proposals for 384 instrument days. The NCNR User Group conducted a user survey in 2015 on new directions for CHRNS, advancing instrumentation, and diversifying the community of research users. (The survey is discussed further in the section “User Program and Obtaining User Access to the NCNR” in Chapter 0).
1 The seven NIST laboratories are the Engineering Laboratory, the Physical Measurement Laboratory, the Information Technology Laboratory, the Material Measurement Laboratory, the Communication Technology Laboratory, the Center for Nanoscale Science and Technology, and the NIST Center for Neutron Research.
2 R. Dimeo, NIST, “NCNR Overview to the Panel on Neutron Research,” presentation to the panel on July 10, 2018.
The NCNR is delivering a high return on investment, as measured by its productivity, and it is an enterprise and national asset that needs to be nurtured and supported. Its managers have been and continue to be excellent stewards of the resource entrusted to them. It has done a remarkable job in maintaining and enhancing the impact of the NCNR by promoting partnerships with NSF and industry and by making timely and bold decisions on what to support and what to reduce. The results they have obtained with an aging 50-year old reactor are laudable.
The NCNR maintains a robust safety management program that addresses radiological, occupational, and industrial hazards. Key elements of the program include management commitment and employee involvement, worksite inspections, management observations, hazard prevention and control (including planning for work involving radiological hazards), and training for staff and users. In addition to operating with a strong safety management program, the NCNR has an excellent safety record that includes no regulatory violations since the last National Academies assessment in 2015.3
Challenges and Opportunities
In the near term the NCNR must deal with an uncertain helium-4 (4He) supply4 and increasing security and safety demands, which place strain on current staff and threaten continuing open-access of the facility to users. The increasing cost of shipping radioactive waste to Savannah River is another of the NCNR’s budgetary concerns. Because it appears that NCNR funding is likely to be flat, or to decrease, for the next few years in nominal dollars, and hence almost surely to decrease in real terms, the NCNR’s ability to continue operating at current levels, let alone to develop new instrumentation and maintain international competitiveness, is at risk.
As noted, the results NCNR has obtained with an aging 50-year old reactor are laudable. However, it is clear that this success cannot continue given the flat budgets that management has had to contend with for several years. The only way a facility like the NCNR can remain competitive is by continually investing in new experimental capabilities. At the NCNR, this investment, which historically was close to 30 percent of the annual operating budget, is gradually being reduced towards zero. Absent funding increases, the facility will ultimately be forced to curtail the services it now provides the research community. The capabilities the NCNR delivers to its users are critical for both the U.S. scientific and innovation enterprise and the Nation’s economic competitiveness.
The role of the NCNR in NIST’s future needs to be continually and strategically examined and evolved. The NCNR currently has a rough strategic plan that needs to be regularly updated and shared with the NIST Director and the Visiting Committee on Advanced Technology (VCAT)5 as well as the NCNR staff and user community. Although the NCNR is less than 10 percent of NIST in terms of budget, it plays a unique role in the Institute and a vital one for the nation’s science. The NCNR needs to be an
3 National Research Council, 2015, An Assessment of the National Institute of Standards and Technology Center for Neutron Research: Fiscal Year 2015, The National Academies Press, Washington, DC.
4 This issue and the importance of a helium recovery system is discussed by other authoring groups. See, for example, National Research Council, 2010, Selling the Nation’s Helium Reserve, The National Academies Press, Washington, DC; American Physical Society, Materials Research Society, and American Chemical Society, 2014, Responding to the U.S. Research Community’s Liquid Helium Crisis, American Physical Society, College Park, MD; M. Beattie-Moss, 2013, “Probing Question: Are We Running Out of Helium?,” Phys.Org, August 26, https://phys.org/news/2013-04-probing-helium.html.
5 “The VCAT reviews and makes recommendations regarding general policy for the National Institute of Standards and Technology, its organization, its budget, and its programs, within the framework of applicable national policies as set forth by the President and the Congress, and submits an annual report to the Secretary of Commerce for submission to the Congress” (NIST Office of the Director, “Visiting Committee on Advanced Technology,” https://www.nist.gov/director/vcat, accessed September 14, 2018).
essential element of NISTs’ strategy and strategic planning. The longevity and relevance of its research enterprise necessitates strong communication of the NCNR’s strategic planning with the NIST management including, for example, a regular annual formal briefing to the NIST Director and VCAT. Participation of the VCAT in the NCNR’s planning and budgetary activities would also be beneficial.
The panel received a presentation about the current status of the reactor.6 There is an ongoing program to replace all of the reactor’s old electronic control panels with new ones, an upgrade to the cold neutron source, and a fuel conversion for the nuclear reactor core. The two major modifications to the reactor are envisaged to occur in the next decade. First, the replacement of the hydrogen cold neutron source inside the reactor vessel with a deuterium cold neutron source will significantly enhance the capabilities of the NCNR. During the shutdown required for this upgrade, the NCNR will replace several existing beam guides with more efficient supermirror guides. The installation of the new cold neutron source will require approval by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The licensing issues involved with this upgrade were not discussed. The nuclear reactor will be shut down in 2022 for this upgrade, and the shutdown will last for 8 to 12 months. During that period, the only neutron facilities available to users in the United States will be the High Flux Isotope Reactor (HFIR) and Spallation Neutron Source (SNS) at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ONRL). It would be wise for the NCNR to initiate a discussion with HFIR and SNS management about how best to meet the needs of NCNR users during the shutdown.
Second, a major nuclear fuel modification is planned for the reactor core involving the conversion of the reactor from an HEU (highly enriched uranium) fuel to a LEU (low enriched uranium) fuel, which is currently planned for 2028. NIST indicated that no changes will be required inside the reactor vessel, although at the same time, the conversion is contingent on the development of a suitable LEU fuel. Much technical work remains to be done for this fuel conversion.
The NIST nuclear reactor is essential to the NCNR; no reactor means no NCNR. Furthermore, with the effective closure of the Lujan Center at the Los Alamos Neutron Science Center (LANSCE) to the broader scientific community, the neutron beams provided to the scientific community at the NCNR are more important today than they ever were in the past, and thus, it is essential that the NIST reactor be kept in operation for as long as possible.
The reactor is being operated in a safe and reliable manner, and the status of the reactor and the reactor vessel is being monitored in an effective and conscientious manner. The NCNR has made plans to replace the hydrogen cold-neutron source inside the reactor vessel with a deuterium cold-neutron source—an upgrade that will significantly enhance the capabilities of the NCNR. Recognizing the importance of NIST being able to continue to provide a high-performance neutron source, the NCNR in 2017 completed a preliminary study of options,7 some key findings of which are listed in Box 2.1. The NCNR would do well to elaborate this preliminary study into a systematic succession plan. Such a plan might touch upon not only the research services provided to the user community but also the benefits delivered in the associated application space, such as drug-delivery systems or practical fuel-cell power plants for vehicles.
6 T. Newton, NIST, “Reactor Operations and Improvements,” presentation to the panel on July 10, 2018.
7 NIST Center for Neutron Research, 2017, Future Options for the Neutron Source at the NIST Center for Neutron Research, June 15.
Opportunities and Challenges
The NCNR research reactor is one of only two high-performance, reactor-based neutron sources in the United States, and it is over 50 years old. It will require recertification in 2020, and it has already-known problems. Several of the cooling tubes in the reactor’s thermal shield are plugged, and this could impact its longevity and maintenance. The ramifications become apparent when one realizes that it would take more than 15 years to replace the NIST reactor with a new one. Other research reactors of similar age have either been shut down or have plans to do so (e.g., the National Research Universal [NRU] reactor in Canada, the Petten reactor in the Netherlands, and the Halden reactor in Norway).
In 2017, the NCNR, as noted, completed a preliminary study of options for provision of neutrons for users for the long term.8 Options elaborated by the study included continued operation of the current reactor, refurbishment of the current reactor, or replacement of that reactor with a new, modern, more powerful one. This study, and the more detailed one that is expected to follow, deserves the full support of NIST and the NIST Director, including, if necessary, funding for the design of a new reactor.
GLOBAL COMPETITIVENESS OF THE NCNR
The NCNR continues to be among the world’s best facilities by all of the standard metrics, as can be seen from the data in Table 2.1.
Over the past decade, the U.S. position in the world neutron enterprise has eroded, and the future looks no better. Europe is well ahead of the United States in the production and delivery of neutron scattering capabilities, and China, as well as other parts of Asia, are expanding theirs, while the United States has closed the neutron facilities it once operated at Brookhaven National Laboratory and at Argonne National Laboratory.9 There are currently three operational neutron sources in accessible user
8 NIST Center for Neutron Research, 2017, Future Options for the Neutron Source at the NIST Center for Neutron Research, June 15.
facilities the United States: two of them reactors, including the HFIR (High-Flux Isotope Reactor) at ORNL and the NCNR at NIST; and one spallation source, the Spallation Neutron Source, also at ORNL. A fourth might be included—the Lujan Center at LANSCE, which has four spallation beam lines, but whose only current user program is run through the NNSA (National Nuclear Security Administration). Both of the reactor-based sources are more than 50 years old. They are well regulated and safe, but a planned, or unplanned, closure of either facility would have a major and instantaneous negative impact on U.S. capabilities for developing advanced materials that drive future innovation, as well as important research on fundamental properties of the neutron, like its lifetime or an upper limit on its electric dipole moment. At present, there are no plans in place to replace either reactor. Moreover, were such a plan to be developed, replacement is a process of 15 years or more, at which point both reactors would be at least 65 years old. In comparison, Europe now has two spallation sources and four high-performance reactors,10 although two of the latter are scheduled for decommission in 2019. The advantage the European Union now enjoys will become even greater when the European Spallation Source (ESS) comes on line around 2025. China11 has two reactors that are less than 10 years old and a new spallation source that is coming up to power. Compared to its competitors, the United States is under-investing in neutron science, and this is eroding U.S. leadership, capabilities, and competitiveness. Scientific and industrial users based in the United States who apply for time at overseas facilities are bound to be treated less generously that those based in the countries that are paying for them. Thus, were the NIST facility to shut down, the economic benefits that derive from neutron research would increasingly accrue to other nations. Thus, it is more important than ever that NCNR plan for, and receive support for, securing future, internationally competitive neutron facilities—to include upgrades (e.g., the anticipated deuterium cold neutron source) and instrumentation—for the U.S. scientific and industrial communities. NIST would be well advised to articulate a succession plan for the future of its neutron source—the reactor itself. NIST would do well to remain in contact with the other U.S. facilities to coordinate and plan.
10 Europe, spallation sources: ISIS, PSI (SINQ); reactors: ILL, FRM-II, LLB, BER-II.
11 China, spallation: CSNS (first beam obtained); reactors: CARR (60MW), CMRR (20MW).
TABLE 2.1 Comparison of the NCNR with Other Neutron Facilities
|n instruments (total-all types)||29||15||19||9||9||20||12||50||33||29||17b||14|
|Scattering||17||11||18||6||7c||16 a||3||33||26 a||23||11||13 a|
|Type||Reactor (HEU)||Reactor (HEU)||Spallation (60 Hz)||Reactor (LEU)||Reactor (LEU)||Spallation (25 Hz)||Spallation (20 Hz)||Reactor (HEU)||Spallation (50 Hz)||Reactor (HEU)||Spallation (50 MHz)||Reactor (LEU)|
a One additional instrument is being commissioned or under construction.
b There is in addition a cold-neutron source.
c There are a further eight sources not/yet operational.
d “Other” could include PGAA (prompt-gamma neutron activation), for example.
e Statistics include Lujan Center and Weapons Neutron Research Facility.
NOTE: ANSTO, Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation; CMRR, China Mianyang Research Reactor in Sichuan Province, China; d, days of operation per year (average of 2015, 2016 and 2017); HANARO, High-Flux Advanced Neutron Application Reactor of the Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute; HEU, highly enriched uranium; HFIR, High Flux Isotope Reactor at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory; ILL, Institut Laue-Langevin; ISIS, Spallation Neutron Source in the United Kingdom; J-PARC, Japan Proton Accelerator Research Complex; LANSCE, Lujan Neutron Scattering Center at the Los Alamos Neutron Science Center; LEU, low enriched uranium; MLZ, Meier-Leibnitz Zentrum based at the FRM-II reactor, Germany; n, number of instruments; NCNR, NIST Center for Neutron Research; PSI, Paul Scherrer Institute in Switzerland; SNS, Spallation Neutron Source at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory.