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Scientific Forum: New Challenges for Countries Running Research Reactors

Charles Piani & Armando Travelli

Charles Piani (left) and Armando Travelli (right) were among the panel of international experts that addressed the Forum. (Photo credit: D. Calma/IAEA)

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From fields of medicine and beyond, millions of people reap the benefits of research reactors every day, but many countries that operate them now face challenges critical to their future.

Dr. Charles Piani, Senior Manager, South African Nuclear Energy Corporation, told delegates attending the Scientific Forum on 22 September, it was no longer sufficient to simply have a safe and well-utilised research reactor.

Physical security, waste disposal ability, political and environmental acceptance, financial independence and lifetime maintenance were among factors integral to a reactor´s existence.

Most reactors in operation today are in their twilight years, with two-thirds over 30 years old. Funding and plans for decommissioning were also vital, although in many cases countries lack the infrastructure to support decommissioning.

Proliferation Concerns

Also key for sustained reactor operations were moves to convert reactors from using high-enriched uranium (HEU) fuel to run on low-enriched uranium (LEU), so that the fuel cannot be diverted for use in a nuclear weapon.

Dr. Armando Travelli, Manager of the Reduced Enrichment for Research and Test Reactors (RERTR) programme, was among the panel of international experts that addressed the Fourm. Dr. Travelli said with one exception, all research reactors built by Western countries since 1978 had been designed to run on LEU. However half of the 270 reactors in operation still used HEU fuel.

"Fuel types have been developed that are appropriate for the conversion of approximately 90% of the existing HEU research reactors supplied by the West," Dr. Travelli said. Further work was needed for the development and qualification of new, high density, LEU research reactor fuel that would permit additional conversions.

In his opening statement to the General Conference, IAEA Director General Dr. Mohamed ElBaradei said the goal was to eliminate commerce in HEU for research reactors. The Agency is helping countries such as Romania to covert their reactors to use HEU, as well as assisting Member States to transfer unwanted fresh HEU stocks back to the country that supplied it.

The Scientific Forum is being attended by delegates from more than 50 countries and organizations in the nuclear field.