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Brazil’s Experience

Research reactors for the benefit of society

José Augusto Perrotta

José Augusto Perrotta has been working in the field of nuclear reactor technology since 1978. Perrotta joined the Nuclear and Energy Research Institute (IPEN) of Brazil’s National Commission for Nuclear Energy in 1983 and retired from IPEN in June 2022. He is an emeritus researcher at IPEN. During his career at IPEN, he performed several technical, management and coordination roles, including serving as Head of the Nuclear Reactor Core Engineering Division, Head of the Nuclear Engineering Center, Coordinator of the Fuel Cell and Hydrogen Program, and Technical Coordinator of the Brazilian Multipurpose Reactor Enterprise.


The importance of research reactors to the world can be exemplified using the idea that science, technology, innovation and society are inextricably linked. Scientific research and discoveries lead to the development of new technology, thereby feeding innovation, which eventually benefits society in terms of health, energy, agriculture, industry and economic development. This is particularly true of research reactors.

One way in which people directly experience the benefits of research reactors is through access to nuclear medicine, which is used to treat and diagnose cancer and cardiovascular disease. Annually, Brazil carries out two million procedures involving nuclear medicine, which is dependent on radioisotope production in research reactors. This became apparent in 2009, when the world’s largest supplier of medical isotopes, the National Research Universal reactor in Canada, shut down. Brazil, along with many other countries, was significantly affected by the global supply shortage of molybdenum-99 (Mo-99), which is used for diagnostic imaging, that followed. Brazilian nuclear medicine uses five per cent of the world’s supply of Mo-99. However, Brazil had become dependent on other countries for supplies of this isotope. 

Following this supply crisis, the decision was made to start constructing a new Brazilian multipurpose research reactor in the city of Iperó, about 120 kilometres outside São Paulo. It is one of around 25 new research reactors currently being planned or under construction around the world. The new reactor is designed to produce radioisotopes for medical and industrial applications; it will also be used for fuel and material irradiation testing to support the Brazilian nuclear energy programme, and to provide neutron beams for scientific and applied research and innovation.  

Many people in Brazil — and beyond — will benefit from research reactors, whether because they need radiopharmaceuticals or owing to the increased knowledge and technological skills developed for human welfare and the betterment of our society. 

Brazil is not heavily reliant on nuclear for its energy needs, deriving much of its electricity from hydropower, wind and biogas. Nonetheless, Brazil has been a pioneer in nuclear technology research since the 1950s. Brazil was the first country in the Southern Hemisphere to inaugurate a nuclear research reactor — the IEA-R1, a 2 megawatt pool-type reactor. This reactor started operation in 1957 in what is now known as the Nuclear and Energy Research Institute (IPEN) in São Paulo, and is still in use today, producing radioisotopes for use in medicine and scientific research. In 1960, the 200 kilowatt IPR-1 TRIGA research reactor began operation in Belo Horizonte; in 1965, the 500 watt Argonauta research reactor began operation at the Institute of Nuclear Engineering in Rio de Janeiro; and, in 1988, the IPEN/MB-01 critical facility began operation in São Paulo. 

These research reactors acted as catalysts to the development of Brazil’s nuclear technology research centres because of the reactors’ multidisciplinary applications across different fields, from health to engineering. As these research reactors are situated within an academic environment, university students and researchers have access to them for carrying out research and for specialized training. Over the past decades, Brazil’s research reactors have enabled its scientists and engineers to conduct scientific and technological research in many areas, including research on materials for use in nuclear power reactors and the application of neutrons in industry, agriculture and the environment. Other research areas include nuclear fuel cycle possibilities for both uranium and thorium, and their various compounds; nuclear fuel development; research into the treatment and storage of radioactive waste; nuclear metrology; and the design of nuclear reactors and other nuclear and radiation facilities. 

With research reactors serving as a foundation for the country’s nuclear endeavours, Brazil is involved in many exciting new developments in the nuclear sector. There is research into areas such as fusion, the utilization of high-intensity lasers, microreactors for space exploration and small modular reactors (SMRs). Brazil developed low enriched uranium fuel for use in SMRs and research reactors. Hydrogen and fuel cells have also been developed in researching clean energy solutions. 

Brazil adheres to the IAEA’s Code of Conduct on the Safety of Research Reactors and is well organized at a national level with respect to nuclear safety, with a new independent nuclear regulatory authority and engaged operating organizations. In this respect, the IAEA plays a very relevant role, since the services it provides, such as IAEA safety standards and Technical Documents, workshops, training courses, symposiums, technical cooperation and review missions, enable Brazil to create an environment with a strong culture of safety and security at its nuclear facilities. 

While IPEN continues to provide great research and development capacity, its graduate degree programme in nuclear technology at the University of São Paulo is key to creating Brazil’s next generation of nuclear technology professionals. So far, more than 3300 students have graduated from master’s and doctoral degree programmes at the university, and IPEN has, annually, around 1000 students pursuing a degree at various levels. The nuclear technology programme is popular with both men and women, with women making up 46 per cent of students in 2022. Despite these achievements, however, human resources remain one of our greatest challenges in terms of the future of research reactors and the nuclear field in general, as the needs are greater than the available resources. We must attract more young people to nuclear professions. Without people, we cannot achieve anything. 


December, 2023
Vol. 64-4

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