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New IAEA Tools Help Countries Decide on Research Reactor Spent Fuel Management

Sara Kouchehbagh

Malaysia’s TRIGA PUSPATI research reactor has been in operation since 1982. (Photo: Malaysian Nuclear Agency)

Medical isotope production, education, research, training, materials testing — the uses and benefits of research reactors are many and varied. However, a key challenge for countries that operate these powerful tools, or have plans to do so, is spent fuel management, particularly the associated infrastructure and costs.  

New IAEA tools are making that task easier, and the IAEA has developed workshops that utilize these tools to aid countries in their decision making processes. 

Proper disposal of nuclear spent fuel is crucial for ensuring safety, and BRIDE has provided valuable insights on making informed decisions regarding the final repository.”
Julia Abdul Karim, Malaysian Nuclear Agency

BRIDE (Back-end Research Reactor Integrated Decision-making Evaluation), based on a customized Excel spreadsheet, allows countries to quantitatively compare available technologies and determine the best strategy for their situation. FERREX (Fuel Cycle Cost Estimation for Research Reactors in Excel) can then provide them with detailed cost estimates for the chosen strategy. Both are freely available upon request. 

The IAEA has developed tutorials that include examples of these tools’ applications and piloted a workshop on BRIDE in Malaysia in 2022. FERREX was discussed as a post-workshop activity. 

“Proper disposal of nuclear spent fuel is crucial for ensuring safety, and BRIDE has provided valuable insights on making informed decisions regarding the final repository,” said Julia Abdul Karim of the Malaysian Nuclear Agency (MNA), which operates the TRIGA PUSPATI research reactor, the country’s only nuclear reactor. “From my perspective, the BRIDE tool is particularly useful for countries like Malaysia, aiding in strategic planning for the future management of its nuclear spent fuel.” 

After 40 years of operating the TRIGA PUSPATI, Malaysia is putting in place an ageing management strategy and plan to handle its spent fuel. During the workshop in November 2022, MNA presented seven scenarios for the participants to consider. The participants then conducted a pilot application of BRIDE, which included a cost comparison for each activity to help determine the preferred option. For Malaysia, the next step is to develop a strategic plan for spent fuel disposition based on the workshop’s results, which will be reviewed by the Malaysian Government and technical communities. 

“This workshop allowed us to help Malaysia sort through many options for disposition of their residual nuclear materials,” said John Dewes, who led the workshop and is a nuclear engineer at the IAEA. “We not only scrutinized the life cycle costs of each option, but also considered the non-economic aspects, such as environmental impact, the availability of human resources, legal and regulatory readiness, and political and public support. It is very complex to think about all these factors at once, but the BRIDE tool methodically assesses each aspect and then combines the results.” 

Fuel cycle of a research reactor

As of October 2023, there were 224 research reactors operating in 54 countries, with another 25 planned or under construction. A research reactor’s fuel cycle is like that of most nuclear power reactors, starting with fuel fabrication and ending with spent fuel management and disposal. Similar to a power reactor, the fuel cycle of a research reactor includes the temporary storage, as well as the reprocessing or disposal of spent fuel declared as waste. Ultimately, it is up to each country to decide on the best method for its spent fuel management.  

The IAEA provides scenarios tailored to meet a country’s needs based on their circumstances. The recent publication Research Reactor Spent Fuel Management: Options and Support to Decision Making (IAEA Nuclear Energy Series No. NF-T-3.9), a direct output of several coordinated research projects, provides additional information about the available strategies for research reactor spent fuel management, and presents the decision methodology to assist those deciding between several options.  

The publication helps to identify the preferred approach depending on a country’s specific situation and presents the IAEA decision support framework tools to consider. Additionally, examples of the technologies that are currently used by some countries are provided. The publication also provides information about BRIDE and FERREX, along with case studies and tutorials to assist users. 

“These IAEA tools and workshops serve to facilitate an educational process that allows a country to reach their own conclusion on what is best for them,” Dewes said. “Countries like Malaysia can then identify the best solution themselves, while also getting vital buy-in from all relevant stakeholders.”


December, 2023
Vol. 64-4

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