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New Life for Research Reactors?

Research Reactor Core

Looking down a research reactor core, where the fuel elements and control rods hang in a water pool. (Credit: K. Hansen/IAEA)

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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-ordinator 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 few countries.

Future Reactors

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 been commissioned.

What's Causing the Shut Down?

Factors contributing to shutdown and decommissioning of research reactors include:

  • 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 support;
  • 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 times.

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 neighboring 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

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