Progress Reported in Big Job to Convert Research Reactors from HEU Fuel

Delegates at the 26th RERTR International Meeting in Vienna. (Photo credit: D. Calma/IAEA)

Much progress has been made, but it will take the better part of a decade before all the world´s civil research reactors can be converted to run on fuel that poses lower proliferation concerns. Among the biggest challenges is developing the types of uranium fuel that converted reactors require. More than 60 civilian research reactors worldwide still run on weapons-grade high-enriched uranium (HEU) fuels and are targeted for conversion over the next ten years.

At the IAEA in Vienna 8 - 11 November 2004, some 200 experts from across the globe took stock of developments at an International Meeting on Reduced Enrichment for Research and Test Reactors (RERTR). The meeting focused on the conversion of research and test reactors now running on HEU to low-enriched uranium (LEU), which is unsuitable for use in a nuclear weapon. Experts reported on research projects and exchanged progress reports on national and international programmes in the field.

Research and test reactors typically are used for research and training, materials testing, and the production of radioisotopes for medicine and industry. Dr. Armando Travelli, Manager of the RERTR programme at the US Argonne National Laboratory, said the goal was to convert all research reactors to LEU by 2013. He said continued progress was being made to eliminate all obstacles to the utilization of LEU for isotope production, an important step that would eliminate the need for using weapons-grade material at research reactors.

"Manufacturers and national laboratories have developed suitable LEU fuel types that can be used in most of the world´s research reactors. To convert some other research reactors a very high density fuel is necessary and this fuel still needs further development and qualification," said Mr. Pablo Adelfang, a nuclear engineer in the IAEA´s Department of Nuclear Energy who co-chaired the meeting. Thirty-one operating research reactors have already been fully converted and seven partially converted. "New and promising LEU fuels suitable to convert the most difficult research reactors are under development," he said.

For more than 20 years the IAEA, has supported international efforts to reduce the amount of HEU in international commerce. It plays an active role in helping countries convert their reactors to LEU fuels. Through its technical cooperation programme, the Agency currently has 20 plus projects on research reactors that tackle issues concerning fuel, decommissioning, waste management, reactor use and safety. (See Story Resources for full details).

Topics covered at the meeting include:

  • Progress reports of national programmes;
  • Fuel development, testing and evaluation;
  • Measurements and calculations for converted reactors;
  • Safety tests and evaluations;
  • Core conversion studies;
  • Production of fission Mo-99 from LEU;
  • Licensing requirements;
  • HEU and LEU fuel cycle;
  • Spent fuel transportation and storage; and
  • Utilization of converted (LEU) reactors.

The IAEA hosted the meeting in cooperation with the RERTR Programme managed by the Argonne National Laboratory for the United States Department of Energy.

Last update: 12 November 2014