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What are Research Reactors? How do they Contribute to Sustainable Development?

Joanne Liou, Xinwen Tang

An aerial view of the reactor core of the University of Missouri Research Reactor (MURR) in the United States of America. MURR produces radioisotopes used in life-saving treatments for liver, pancreatic, prostate and thyroid cancers. (Photo: University of Missouri)

More than one third of the nuclear reactors in operation around the world are used for research, educational purposes and the production of radioisotopes, rather than for power generation. Unlike nuclear power reactors designed to generate electricity, nuclear research reactors are primarily used to produce neutrons. Neutrons are uncharged subatomic particles used in various applications, such as the study of materials at the atomic level, the production of radioisotopes for medicine, industry and research, and the imaging of objects’ internal structure.  

Around 220 research reactors are in operation in 54 countries, and about 25 are under construction or are being planned. They play a key role in not only advancing nuclear technologies, but also improving many aspects of daily life by helping countries to realize sustainable development objectives. Research reactors come in a variety of sizes and designs. Often located at academic and research institutes, research reactors are smaller and operate at lower temperatures than conventional power reactors. The thermal power of most research reactors ranges from 0 to 100 megawatts (thermal) (MW(th)), in contrast to the 3000 MW(th) of a large nuclear power reactor. Accordingly, the amount of nuclear fuel used, and the volume of radioactive waste produced, is significantly lower for research reactors. 

How are research reactors utilized?

Research reactors are designed and utilized for experiments, education and training, as well as the production of radioisotopes for medical and industrial applications. They provide a controlled environment to study and understand the behavior of materials, neutron interactions and radiation effects. Beyond supporting research across many disciplines, research reactors are pivotal for advancements in nuclear energy. As test beds for innovative reactor technologies, they offer a realistic setting for experimenting with materials and nuclear fuels. Research reactors also provide education and training opportunities for staff at nuclear facilities, radiation protection and regulatory personnel, as well as students and researchers. 

How do research reactors support the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals?

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are a set of 17 objectives established in 2015 by the United Nations to tackle global challenges, such as in health, education and energy. Research reactors contribute to addressing several of the SDGs, including:

SDG 3 — Good Health and Well-being: Research reactors are instrumental in medical imaging and cancer treatment. They produce radioisotopes utilized in 85 per cent of nuclear medicine procedures and are essential for the development of new radiopharmaceuticals, benefiting millions of people annually by enhancing diagnostic methods and treatments for various cancers. Rays of Hope, the IAEA’s flagship cancer initiative, is helping countries to increase access to such life-saving treatments.

SDG 4 — Quality Education and SDG 5 — Gender Equality: As an educational and training tool, research reactors serve students of all genders. Workshops, trainings and missions supported by the IAEA, as well as the IAEA Marie Skłodowska-Curie Fellowship Programme and the Lise Meitner Programme, cultivate an inclusive workforce that contributes to and drives global scientific and technological innovation. 

SDG 6 — Clean Water and Sanitation: Research reactors play a key role in the development of radiation-based sterilization techniques for water treatment. Radiation processing in wastewater treatment is an effective method to eliminate harmful microorganisms, pathogens and other contaminants from water, making it safe for consumption and other uses. 

SDG 7 — Affordable and Clean Energy: Research reactors enable the development and testing of new energy technologies. Researchers can assess novel nuclear reactor concepts, fuels and materials to optimize nuclear power reactor designs for enhanced safety, efficiency and performance to help support a clean energy future. Atoms4NetZero is an IAEA initiative that supports countries’ efforts to harness the power of nuclear energy in the transition to net zero. Research reactors are also used, with techniques such as neutron imaging, neutron scattering and neutron depth profiling, to study non-nuclear energy concepts such as hydrogen fuel cells and lithium-ion batteries. 

SDG 8 — Decent Work and Economic Growth: Students, researchers and professionals in the nuclear field can gain practical experience and knowledge through trainings conducted with research reactors. Such trainings can prepare them for opportunities in the nuclear and related fields. Furthermore, research reactors are used to deliver products and services, such as for silicon doping, which introduces impurities into silicon to modify electrical properties for electronic devices.

SDG 9 — Research reactors foster innovation in various areas, from electronics and construction materials for extreme conditions to medicine and more. Neutrons produced by research reactors are also valuable for non-destructive testing across various industries, ensuring the quality and safety of objects.

SDG 17 — Partnerships for the Goals: Working towards sustainable development is a collective effort, and many institutes and universities housing research reactors participate in collaborative projects and research activities that enhance regional and international cooperation on and access to science, technology and innovation.

What is the role of the IAEA? 

The IAEA supports countries in the efficient and sustainable use of research reactors so that they can fully reap the benefits of these nuclear facilities. The IAEA offers research reactor training courses and workshops, as well as published guidance, safety standards and e-learning courses. The IAEA’s coordinated research projects foster international cooperation and networking among experts, while advancing science involving research reactors.  

The IAEA’s review missions for research reactors support new research reactor projects. They also assess countries’ practices using IAEA guidance and standards to improve the operation, utilization, safety and maintenance of reactor facilities. Several IAEA technical cooperation projects also focus on strengthening countries’ technical capabilities for operation and maintenance to improve research reactor safety, reliability and utilization. 

December, 2023
Vol. 64-4

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