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New IAEA Peer Review Service Helps Countries Maximize the Power and Utility of Research reactors

Emma Midgley

A team of IAEA and international experts completed an Integrated Research Reactor Utilization Review mission at the Idaho National Laboratory (INL) in June 2023. (Photo: INL) 

Research reactors are versatile tools. While they are not used to generate electricity, some are contributing to the development of innovative clean energy solutions, while others are providing life-saving radioisotopes and revealing new facts about cultural heritage. Many research reactors are used to their full capacity, but some are underutilized. To help countries harness the full potential of their research reactors in a sustainable and effective way, the IAEA has launched the Integrated Research Reactor Utilization Review (IRRUR).

“Many research reactors were built in the 1950s and 1960s to address an immediate need at that time. Today, the potential of research reactors is better understood, and new applications are being developed for both new and old reactors,” said Nuno Pessoa Barradas, Research Reactor Specialist at the IAEA. 

Many research reactors were built in the 1950s and 1960s to address an immediate need at that time. Today, the potential of research reactors is better understood, and new applications are being developed for both new and old reactors.”
Nuno Pessoa Barradas, Research Reactor Specialist, IAEA

The inaugural IRRUR was carried out jointly with an Operation and Maintenance Assessment for Research Reactors (OMARR) mission in 2022 at the 5 megawatt (MW) pool-type RECH-1 research reactor at the La Reina Nuclear Research Centre in Santiago, Chile, following a pilot review mission in Italy in 2019. The IRRUR team of international experts had brought a range of scientific, managerial and operational backgrounds related to research reactor utilization and applications. 

“Nuclear science and technologies contribute to national development goals in health, environment, water and agricultural resources, energy, mining and industry, among others,” said Luis Huerta, Executive Director of the Chilean Nuclear Energy Commission. “These IAEA missions, with the objective of an exhaustive review of the Chilean nuclear reactor RECH-1, provided an analysis of our capabilities and capacities, in order to improve operation and maintenance and to expand the use and applications of our nuclear facility, especially for new research and development initiatives.” 

Experts from Argentina, Belgium, the United States of America and the IAEA, as well as an observer from Peru, joined the five-day mission. The team found opportunities for the expanded utilization of the reactor, such as partnering with stakeholders in medical isotope production to plan for future needs. The team also recommended that the facility develop an outreach strategy to increase its user community. 

Since the mission, a neutron imaging system at the Chilean reactor has been installed, with the assistance of the IAEA, thereby opening new lines of research at the reactor. Neutron imaging is a non-destructive way of imaging objects, similar to X-ray radiography. It can be used to examine nuclear fuels, electronic components and engine turbine blades, as well as to characterize fuel cells and geological samples.

Supporting clean energy solutions 

The importance of research reactors for research and development, including research into nuclear fission and fusion reactor materials, was noted at two consecutive IRRUR missions in the United States of America in 2023. International teams of experts visited the Idaho National Laboratory (INL) and the Nuclear Reactor Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). 

The INL research reactor is mainly utilized for research on neutron radiography and other non-destructive techniques, and for neutron irradiations, which explore how nuclear fuel and structural materials react to normal and extreme conditions. The MIT reactor carries out irradiations, which complement the work of the INL and other United States nuclear research facilities, and supports research in both nuclear fission and fusion materials development. 

The mission found that the INL could improve some digital neutron capabilities to enhance its research into innovative nuclear energy solutions, while MIT could benefit from engaging more productively with the global nuclear science and technology community. In addition, the mission recommended that the Nuclear Reactor Laboratory at MIT revitalize its ageing infrastructure, in order to improve reliable reactor utilization and provide a more attractive environment for outside users, students and staff. 

Ron Crone, Associate Laboratory Director of the Materials and Fuels Complex at the INL and a member of the IRRUR team on the MIT mission, said he believed that MIT’s Nuclear Reactor Laboratory had the potential to become a “world-leading” facility for the custom irradiation of nuclear fuels and materials. “With additional infrastructure investment and more external engagement, I believe it will support important research into innovative energy solutions involving nuclear fission, as well as nuclear fusion, for the coming decades,” he said. 

IRRUR review missions are carried out upon request and can either be directed at all the activities of a research reactor or limited to specific facility mission areas. The reviews are based on IAEA guidance on the strategic planning for and utilization of research reactors, and on international best practices.

The IAEA published IRRUR guidelines in 2023, which provides information on the preparation, implementation and reporting of IRRUR missions, as well as information on self-assessments for operating organizations of research reactor facilities. In 2020, the IAEA also launched an e-learning course on strategic planning for enhancing the utilization of research reactors.

IRRUR missions 

2019: Italy (pilot)

2022: Chile, Peru, South Africa 

2023: Islamic Republic of Iran, USA (two missions) 

2024: Canada (planned)

December, 2023
Vol. 64-4

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