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[cdn-nucl-l] New Life for Research Reactors?
Posted at IAEA website.
Researchers have long used small nuclear reactors as engines of discovery
for everything from lifesaving cancer treatment to electronic gadgetry.
Along the way they have revolutionised the plastics industry to make once
fragile material lighter and stronger than steel. But the use and future of
research reactors is radically changing in a more economically competitive,
and safety-conscious, marketplace. The IAEA’s Crosscutting Co-coordinator
for Research Reactors, Mr. Iain Ritchie, describes the landscape to come.
“The future is bright. But in the next 15 years rather than having the 272
research reactors operational today, it will be more like 30-40. Research
reactors have contributed to the development of nuclear science and
technology for the past 50 years. But we are at the point where the
discoveries and innovations that can be made by most of today’s research
reactors have already been made. New innovations and discoveries need newer
tools and more powerful reactors with special attributes,” he said.
The mixed picture has social and economic repercussions, especially in
developing countries where tools of nuclear science and technology help
raise levels of health care, food production, and industrial efficiency. A
key application of research reactors is the production of medical
radioisotopes, a multi-billion dollar global industry today centered in a
Over two-thirds of today’s research reactors are pushing past 30 years of
age – close to the end of their typical 40-year lifespan. “In most cases,
these reactors are not ‘really old’ from a safety point of view, since most
have been refurbished so that they meet or exceed modern safety standards,”
Mr. Ritchie said.
Many of these aging reactors, whose primary purpose was to provide a neutron
source for research and other purposes, will be shut down or decommissioned
this decade. In their stead will come new, technologically advanced reactors
that can meet multiple needs or those built for a dedicated commercial
purpose – such as to produce medical radioisotopes, or for silicon doping to
enhance the conductivity of electronic components.
Canada, for example, has built two new reactors that are essentially
commercial isotope factories, devoted entirely to producing isotopes for
medical diagnosis and treatment. Australia on the other hand, is building a
multipurpose reactor to benefit the country’s agriculture, mining, energy,
and environmental sectors. Importantly it also guarantees Australia’s supply
of medical radioisotopes, according to the Australian Nuclear Science and
Technology Organisation (ANSTO).
“Radioisotopes with short half-lives could not be imported,” ANSTO reports.
“If Australia were reliant on overseas stocks, we would be on the end of
very long supply lines from North America, South Africa and Europe. Some
medical procedures that are available at present would become unavailable
because the radioisotopes could not be imported.”
Australia’s replacement reactor is one of nine research reactors under
construction throughout the world, with another eight currently planned.
Since the 1970s worldwide, many more reactors have been shut down than have
What’s Causing the Shut Down?
Factors contributing to shutdown and decommissioning of research reactors
Aging materials and equipment in aging facilities, run by aged staff;
Underutilization – the original mission of some facilities may have been
accomplished or is no longer needed;
Inadequate funding, as fiscal realities force governments to cut back
Stagnation of nuclear power in many industrialized countries; and
Unavailability of suitable high-density low-enriched uranium fuels.
New Research Reactors Commissioned VS Old Reactors Shut Down
Decade 1955 - 1964 1965 - 1974 1975 - 1984 1985 - 1994 1996 -2000
Commissioned 299 187 74 38 12
Shut down 29 78 90 100 47
Source: Perspectives on Research Reactor Utilization, IAEA
“It’s the universities that are doing most of the closing of reactors,” says
Allan Krass, Physical Science Officer, US State Department. “They are
expensive to run.” The former university professor says nuclear science is
no longer a popular career path and the lack of demand to use reactors for
education, training and research is one of the reasons they are closing.
“Students going into nuclear energy will have many fewer facilities.
Research reactors will be concentrated more in wealthier countries. They are
likely to be more sophisticated and certainly more expensive so they will
tend to be located in rich countries not poorer ones. To the extent that
they are in developing countries, they will be regional 'centres of
excellence'," Mr Krass said.
Status of Research Reactors
Developed Countries Developing Countries
188 In Operation 84 In Operation
187 Shut Down 27 Shut Down
154 Decommissioned 14 Decommissioned
3 Planned 5 Planned
4 Under Construction 5 Under Construction
Source: IAEA Research Reactor Database, September 2003
Adapting to New Times
But for some research reactors of old, the outlook is far from gloomy. Many
countries have shaped their reactors to remain relevant. Finland, for
example, has adopted an innovative approach to use its research reactor for
pioneering brain cancer treatment. The FiR 1 reactor – a 250 kW Triga rector
operating since 1962 – is used for onsite treatment of patients using a new
type of radiation therapy called boron neutron capture therapy (BNCT).
A special treatment facility was built at FiR 1 to allow patients to
participate in the BNCT trials, and the reactor generates the neutrons
necessary for treatment.
Still in trial stages, BNCT offers a number of potentially significant
advantages compared to traditional radiation therapy. Treatment is better
targeted to cancerous cells so that when a tumour is irradiated with
neutrons, the damage to normal tissue is respectively less. It is also less
demanding for the patient as treatment is only one to two sessions, compared
to conventional radiation therapy where patients can be treated up to 30
Mr. Iiro Auterinen, BNCT chief at the Technical Research Centre of Finland,
describes the treatment environment at the reactor as “world top quality”.
“Close to 30 patients have been treated at FiR since it started in May
1999,” he said.
Becoming a commercial operation is another way countries have responded to
keep their reactors viable. In the face of funding cut backs to reactors
worldwide, countries like Argentina and South Africa responded by becoming
as self-supporting as possible. South Africa’s research reactor now
generates upwards of 66% of it own income through radioisotope production
and silicon doping.
“A self supporting, profit making research reactor is still a dream,” says
Mr. Krass. “But if you look to South Africa they are making steps toward
it,” he said.
A Move to Centres of Excellence
To survive in today’s difficult environment, research reactors must be
actively managed: planned, researched, financed and marketed, says Mr.
Ritchie. The IAEA is helping countries do just that.
According to IAEA Head of Nuclear Safety and Security, Mr. Tomihorio
Taniguchi, “many research reactors that are in operation, or are being
proposed for operation, seem to have neither realistic utilization plans nor
solid decommissioning plans”.
The Agency is assisting countries to develop strategic plans for the
long-term sustainability (and eventual decommissioning) of their research
reactors. This includes helping countries identify their reactor’s present
and potential future capabilities.
Through strategic planning and other support, the IAEA is also encouraging
facilities that have become, or are developing into, “regional centers of
excellence,” where a single reactor can service a number of neighbouring
countries. The research reactor at Pitesti in Romania, for example, is used
for co-operative research programmes and training within the region, in
addition to carrying out its own training and research on the development,
safety and reliability of fuel for its nuclear programme.
Many aging research reactors, however, will not survive in this tough new
environment. “Reluctance to shut down and decommission is understandable,”
says Mr. Ritchie. “But sooner or later it has to be done and the Agency
stands ready to help, especially in the area of planning.” -- Kirstie
Hansen, IAEA Division of Public Information.