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Swift and Effective

A new approach to updating IAEA Safety Guides

Wolfgang Picot

The IAEA recently updated 11 Safety Guides on research reactors.

Research reactors are essential for advancing nuclear science, conducting experiments and producing vital isotopes for medical and other purposes. The IAEA’s Safety Guides on research reactors play an indispensable role in ensuring the safety of these facilities. The Safety Guides are one of three sets of publications that comprise the IAEA Safety Standards Series. The Series consists of:  

  1. Safety Fundamentals, which establish the fundamental safety objectives and the principles of protection and safety in language that is understandable to non-expert readers;  

  2. General Safety Requirements (GSRs) and Specific Safety Requirements (SSRs), which set out the requirements that must be met to ensure the protection of people and the environment, both now and in the future, and to help countries establish their national regulatory frameworks; and  
  3. General Safety Guides (GSGs) and Specific Safety Guides (SSGs), which present international good practices and increasingly reflect best practices and provide recommendations and guidance on how to comply with the SSRs.  

Updating the safety standards for research reactors is quite difficult because there is such a tremendous variety of them. The IAEA Safety Guides are relevant for all facilities, from the smallest critical assemblies to large research reactors such as the HFR.”
Onne Wouters, Reactor Manager of the High Flux Reactor (HFR), Nuclear Research and Consultancy Group, Netherlands

Due to the highly technical nature of the Safety Guides, updating them is a meticulous process. Knowledge is gathered and integrated into the Guides from varied experiences of using nuclear technologies around the world. Drafts produced by the IAEA are reviewed by multiple Safety Standards Committees. The drafts are also shared with participating countries for comments and further input before being endorsed by the Commission on Safety Standards.  

Typically, such revisions span several years owing to their complexity and the need to carefully consider advancements in nuclear and radiological research, development and safety practices. 

However, the IAEA took a new approach in the latest update of 11 Safety Guides on research reactors. By updating them simultaneously, the IAEA accelerated the process, and the publication cycle was completed within 12 months, from 2022 to 2023. 

“Revising the research reactor Safety Guides all together as a batch through a dedicated process made it much easier for participating countries to harmonize their review of the content of the safety standards and provide timely feedback,” said David Sears, Senior Nuclear Safety Officer at the IAEA, who led the project. 

Finalizing such a complex project within a short period represents a significant achievement. “Given the tight timeline, this project required strong cooperation within the IAEA, intense focus and a concentrated effort from experts, country representatives and the IAEA’s technical editors,” Sears said. “This would not have been possible without the commitment and dedication of everyone involved.” 

The SSR publication for research reactors, Safety of Research Reactors (IAEA Safety Standards Series No. SSR-3), was updated in 2016. It covers all requirements for safe research reactor operations, from management and regulatory supervision to site evaluation, design, construction, operation, utilization, modification and decommissioning. Additionally, it incorporates relevant lessons learned from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident and insights from countries’ experiences and feedback.  

The recent update concerned the 11 SSGs, which provide guidance and present best practices on how to fulfil the SSR-3 requirements. In contrast to SSR-3, which provides an overview of all relevant issues in one volume, the SSGs deal with specific technical topics such as maintenance, periodic testing and inspection, core management and fuel handling, operational limits and conditions, instrumentation control, and ageing management.  

“Updating the safety standards for research reactors is quite difficult because there is such a tremendous variety of them,” said Onne Wouters, Reactor Manager of the High Flux Reactor (HFR) at the Nuclear Research and Consultancy Group (NRG) in the Netherlands. “The IAEA Safety Guides are relevant for all facilities, from the smallest critical assemblies to large research reactors such as the HFR.” 

Many research reactors have received upgrades with electronic equipment, and others are being modified for new applications, expanding their intended purposes. As many research reactors are several decades old, ageing management is also increasingly important. “With new electronic technologies and ageing reactors, we have to improve and adapt continuously,” Wouters said. “It is essential that the Safety Guides keep reflecting these changes.” 

The IAEA safety standards are not legally binding for countries, and they apply them at their discretion. Many countries that use IAEA safety standards adopt them within their national regulations.


65 years of IAEA Safety Standards

The IAEA looks back on a long history of safety standards, with the first on Safe Handling of Radioisotopes (IAEA Safety Series No. 1) issued in 1958, just one year after the IAEA’s establishment. It was also the first publication of the IAEA. Today, most users access the Safety Standards Serieson the IAEA website, where they are available for free.

December, 2023
Vol. 64-4

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