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Research Reactor Networks Optimize Operations to Meet Increasing Demand

Melissa Evans

At the research reactor facility of the Technical University of Vienna, the Eastern European Research Reactor Initiative hosts training courses to help students build practical skills.  (Photo: IAEA) 

Nuclear research reactors are important scientific hubs for the nuclear community that house training sessions and experiments and provide valuable products and services, including the production of radioisotopes for medical, agricultural and industrial use. Increasing demand is being placed on the more than 200 operational research reactors around the world, and the IAEA is helping research reactor staff to meet this demand by forging networks to foster collaboration with the goal of optimizing operations. 

The Regional Network of Research Reactors and Related Institutions in Latin America and the Caribbean (RIALC) launched in 2023, with the support of the IAEA. RIALC, which was formed at the regional level and based on shared regional challenges, comprises 9 countries with 16 operational research reactors. By joining forces, each country benefits from the pool of experts and capabilities of the other research reactors in the network. This allows each research reactor facility to focus on the area where it has the competitive advantage, while ensuring that regional demands are better met and that services are more efficient. The network evaluated its stock of research reactors to identify national and regional priorities, as well as the specialties of each reactor. Intercomparison exercises are also being undertaken to help standardize future endeavours. 

“The countries all agreed to work in an integrated and harmonized manner, as a single block, for nuclear technological development. The level of development achieved by various countries is quite different, but this is precisely the added value that RIALC has — showing the paths already taken in the region to allow countries to demonstrate their available infrastructure and resources,” explained Mario Mallaupoma, RIALC Coordinator and President of the Peruvian Institute of Nuclear Energy. “RIALC was founded not only on the desire to support each other as countries in the region, but to assume a true commitment on the part of decision makers to promote the achievement of the objectives of sustainable development in the region and to improve the quality of life of the population.” 

RIALC has been working on five thematic areas: education and training; operation and ageing; reactor applications such as geochronology; neutron imaging and neutron activation analysis; and radioisotope production. 

Since RIALC’s launch in February 2023, the Chilean Nuclear Energy Commission has hosted technical experts from Peru to discuss neutron activation analysis — a non-destructive testing application for determining trace elements that is often conducted at research reactors due to their neutron flux capabilities. Mallaupoma said that “Peru has a 10 megawatt research reactor, making it the one with the highest power in the region and the one that can produce the greatest neutron flux. Peru will promote and encourage the greater use of our research reactor to develop research work, as well as actions to produce goods and services jointly with the other countries of the Latin American and Caribbean region.” 

A new Spanish language e-learning course, Strategic Planning for National Nuclear Institutions, was launched at the IAEA’s 67th General Conference in September 2023, complementing the English language course on the same subject. The course has been tailored to the Latin American and the Caribbean region, specifically with two in-depth case studies provided by the RIALC representatives from Argentina and Chile. It is based on the 2017 IAEA publication entitled Strategic Planning for Research Reactors (IAEA Nuclear Energy Series No. NG-T-3.16) and concentrates on the operational management of research reactors. Participants in the course learn how to prioritize demands for different types of services to ensure the effectiveness and sustainability of research reactors. This builds on the IAEA’s history of supporting research reactors in strategic planning activities. Since 2014, the IAEA has provided expert advice on 95 strategic plans associated with 63 reactors, in response to countries’ requests. 

The RIALC Network follows in the footsteps of earlier research reactor networks that have been founded with the support of the IAEA, including both regional and technical networks. The Eastern European Research Reactor Initiative (EERRI) was formed in 2008. Similar to RIALC, it aims to bolster regional training efforts, as well as to optimize services. It is made up of seven countries — Austria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Romania, Serbia and Slovenia — and activities are hosted by participating institutions. The EERRI has hosted 18 editions of a six-week training course for young professionals in the nuclear field, supported by the IAEA. It includes technical lectures, site visits and practical exercises at EERRI research reactor facilities to prepare the next generation of research reactor staff. 

The sharing of technical expertise forms the basis for another IAEA-supported research reactor network — the Global TRIGA Research Reactor Network (GTRRN). TRIGA (Training, Research, Isotopes, General Atomics) reactors are all designed and function in a similar fashion, and there are more than 30 currently in operation worldwide. The GTRRN was launched in November 2013 to help TRIGA research reactor operators in 15 countries to address common issues, such as TRIGA’s low enriched uranium fuel, which is increasingly difficult to obtain and to dispose of after use. “The GTRRN is a preeminent resource on TRIGA research reactors, and the network members use it to share information and to help each other — for instance, to source spare parts needed for experiments, since sometimes it can be a challenge to find potential suppliers,” said Nuno Pessoa Barradas, Research Reactor Specialist at the IAEA. 

The IAEA helps countries to improve research reactor services. As research reactors are unique scientific institutions, bespoke networks supported by the IAEA create a platform for research reactor experts from around the world to solve shared challenges and to realize the full potential of their institutions through collaboration.

December, 2023
Vol. 64-4

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