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Promoting the Safety and Security of Research Reactors

There are hundreds of “research reactors” in countries throughout the world. Many of these reactors are old, obsolete, inoperative, or in need of repair. In some cases, stocks of spent fuel are stored in an insecure manner. In other instances, spent fuel has been building up for years with few opportunities for disposal. Some of these reactors are still fueled with highly enriched uranium (HEU), a key ingredient for assembling a nuclear weapon.

Inside a research reactor

Inside a reasearch reactor at Bantaan, Indonesia.

Construction of nuclear research reactors reached a peak some 30 to 40 years ago. They were built for strategic purposes related to nuclear power, research, and applications including isotope production. In many cases, few provisions were made for monitoring the effects of ageing or end-of life decommissioning and decontamination.

Only a small fraction of the reactors still in operation are genuinely needed for research, training, or isotope production. As a recent Harvard University analysis concluded:

“An international effort should be put in place to help countries assess the real benefits and dangers posed by their research reactors, and assist in shutting down and decommissioning those facilities where the benefits no longer outweigh the costs and risks.”

From a safety perspective, reactors in three priority groups are a particular concern:

• Reactors that have been shut down for more than a year with no plans for decommissioning and decontamination;

• Reactors or spent fuel storage pools housing leaking fuel assemblies or exotic fuels that require special management; and

• Reactors over 30 years old that are still functioning but without up to date safety systems in operation.

Since 1999, the IAEA has been helping to enhance the general safety of ageing research reactor facilities, and spent fuel storage, in selected countries of the former Soviet Union, and Eastern and Central Europe in order to reduce the risk of accident and improve the safety and security of such facilities.

The most urgent task is to assess potential problems and put in place a management system to address them on a priority basis, especially concerns about ageing materials and equipment. The technical co-operation activities are focused on three key objectives:

• Enhancing the safety of ageing reactor facilities and spent fuel storage, including support for the return of fuel to the country of origin, thereby reducing the risk of accident and improving security;

• Correcting institutional shortcomings through training and guidance, and provision of limited monitoring equipment in chronic cases; and

• developing long-term measures for achieving an improvement in safety, security, and exploitation of all research reactors and creating a common safety culture.

“Most of the research reactors in question are equipped with obsolete instrumentation,” explains Iain Ritchie of the IAEA Nuclear Fuel Cycle and Materials Section. “Since many reactors are of similar age, they also present similar ageing concerns. One key challenge is to identify generic solutions to common problems—most operators are faced with the serious problem of what to do with large quantities of spent fuel, a crisis made worse by the financial constraints under which they operate.”

There are some 25,000 known assemblies of spent fuel of Russian origin in or at research reactor facilities in Central and Eastern Europe. Fuel corrosion and resulting leakage can lead to environmental contamination with potentially serious consequences. The technical co-operation team has therefore been developing a regional approach to the problem of spent fuel management, although the existence of many exotic fuels makes generic solutions difficult.

IAEA is also striving to strengthen the “enabling environment” for operational safety by supporting training courses and workshops to improve the knowledge base, as many reactor operators are faced with the difficulty of establishing or retaining, a culture of safety. To implement this approach, IAEA organises special missions, known as Integrated Safety Assessment of Research Reactors (INSARR), to review safety infrastructure including regulatory supervision, operating organization, management and training, and safety analysis.

IPPAS: Strengthening Systems of Physical Protection

The International Physical Protection Advisory Service (IPPAS) was created by the IAEA to assist Member States in strengthening and enhancing the effectiveness of their physical protection of nuclear materials and facilities. Upon request, the IAEA assembles an international team of specialists who review the Member State’s physical protection system and compare it to international guidelines and recognized best practices. INFCIRC/225, The Physical Protection of Nuclear Materials and Nuclear Facilities, issued by the IAEA, is the recognized source. Based on the review, the team provides specific recommendations for improvements and recognizes current good practices.

IPPAS missions have already been conducted in Eastern and Central Europe, Africa, Latin America, and Southeast Asia. Team recommendations cover the entire scope of issues concerning physical protection including legislation and government organization, licensing and regulations, facility implementation and assessment, and inspection and enforcement.

IPPAS missions generate substantial benefits for both requesting States and the international community. They evaluate physical protection systems holistically; they help States to raise additional funding for recommended upgrades; they can help to generate public confidence that facilities are operating at accepted international standards; and they help to build the global network of professional expertise committed to a common objective – secure nuclear facilities.

IPPAS missions can also be tailored to meet the specific needs of the requesting country. Related issues, such as combating illicit trafficking of nuclear materials, can be included in the team review. And follow-up missions can be arranged to assess how a host country has implemented IPPAS recommendations.

The IAEA is not able to solve all the safety problems of ageing research reactors and their spent fuel assemblies. Because of the proliferation risks associated with the HEU fuel at these research reactors, the Nuclear Threat Initiative has approved a contribution of US$ 260,000 to the IAEA to support development of an integrated plan for the shipment of HEU at over 30 Soviet-supplied research reactors. It is an enormous, urgent and growing task that requires international co-operation at numerous levels. The IAEA is supporting research reactor operators in tackling key safety problems before they deteriorate further with consequences that could impact on health and the environment. The IAEA provides limited direct support at selected sites, but must catalyse additional support from the donor community for other facilities in need of assistance in Europe and elsewhere.

Physical security is also a great concern at many of these research reactors—a concern that is being addressed through concerted actions by the international community. As the Harvard Belfer Center notes:

“Security at these hundreds of buildings varies widely, from excellent to appalling. In some cases security is provided by a single sleepy watchman and a chain link fence. Yet vulnerable nuclear material anywhere could be stolen and made into a terrorist bomb that would be a threat to everyone, everywhere.

”But the budget and personnel available to the IAEA physical protection programmes need to be increased dramatically, making it possible to carry out a much larger number of missions to help Member States. The recent US$ 1.2 million three-year grant from the Nuclear Threat Initiative to the IAEA, matched by the U.S. Department of Energy, is a critical first step. This new effort is expanding IAEA’s ability to review security for nuclear facilities worldwide, to identify needed security upgrades, and to organize contributions to carry out the upgrades.

  Strengthening Nuclear Safety and Security

Combating Illicit Trafficking
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Promoting the Safety and Security of Research Reactors
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Working to Secure Radioactive Sources
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“The IAEA is the only international institution of global scope devoted to controlling access to weapons-usable material. It is no longer fiscally prudent or rational for an organization whose mission is so important to be asked to do so much, with so little, for so long. We see our grants as early installments in what we hope will become a wave of new contributions to this important work.”

Charles Curtis
President and Chief Operating Officer,
Nuclear Threat Initiative

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