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Comprehensive IAEA Review Supports Canadian Research Reactor Plans for Expansion


The Integrated Research Reactor Utilization Review (IRRUR) mission reviewing the research reactor at McMaster University in Canada. (Photo: McMaster University)

A key Canadian research reactor has undergone a comprehensive IAEA assessment, in a  significant move towards enhancing its research capabilities and scientific impact.

The reactor at the McMaster University in Canada underwent the evaluation through an Integrated Research Reactor Utilization Review (IRRUR) mission, conducted by the IAEA. This review involved a team of IAEA and international experts assessing the research reactor’s utilization and guide its future trajectory. 

The McMaster Nuclear Reactor (MNR) has been a cornerstone in advancing medical applications of nuclear science due to its significant role in the production of crucial isotopes such as iodine-125 (I-125) used in cancer treatment and diagnostic imaging.  

The Government of Canada and the province of Ontario recently provided funding for the expansion of the reactor. This will be invested to bolster medical radioisotope production, enhance neutron beam science programmes, and significantly increase the reactor's operating capacity, elevating neutron output by 300 per cent. The planned increased capabilities also aim to expand the MNR’s use for research and development in energy, the environment, materials science, and the education and training of a new generation of Canada’s nuclear community. 

“What sets this IRRUR mission apart is its rare occurrence within Canada's research reactor landscape. The request for IAEA assistance highlights the pivotal role of the IAEA and global experts collaborating to shape the future of nuclear science applications,” said Nuno Pessoa Barradas, an IAEA Research Reactor Specialist. 

Research reactor utilization 

At McMaster University, the IRRUR mission examined the utilization of the 5MW pool type research reactor which is currently operating at 3MW.  

“The MNR is a truly multipurpose reactor,” said Barradas, who led the mission. “In spite of its relatively low power, it is one of the top 10 world producers of medical radioisotopes. It is used for nuclear materials irradiation, has post-irradiation examination facilities, conducts a neutron beam programme, and is developing what will be one of the world’s very few intense positron beam facilities, and the only one in the Americas.” 

The IRRUR team examined how McMaster University could better utilize the research reactor in several areas, including though education and training opportunities that integrate the reactor with all McMaster faculties and could help prepare Canada’s future nuclear workforce . 

The MNR’s Director of Nuclear Research and Education Support, Karin Stephenson, said, “We are revising our strategic plans to incorporate the feedback provided by the IRRUR mission and are actively pursuing expanded utilization of the MNR to sustain and enhance a world-class facility for neutron-based science that drives McMaster’s continued excellence in nuclear research, innovation and training.” 

By harnessing the expertise and insights from this IAEA-led review, the team at McMaster aim to not only propel their own research endeavors but also contributes significantly to global scientific advancements in the field of nuclear science and medical technology. 

“Neutron scattering has a historic past at McMaster, nurturing a Nobel prize winner, and there is an opportunity to establish the MNR as a national research facility to serve the Canadian neutron beam community,” Barradas added. 

About the IRRUR and IAEA review services 

Nine experts from Australia, Canada, Czech Republic, Netherlands, USA and the IAEA took part in the IRRUR mission at McMaster University. 

The IRRUR service assists countries in enhancing the utilization and sustainability of nuclear research reactor facilities. Unlike the reactors in a nuclear power plant that use the energy released when neutrons split atoms of uranium to generate electrical power, research reactors use the neutrons themselves for research, development, as well as for education and training purposes

In addition to IRRUR, the IAEA offers other peer review services related to research reactors, including the Operation and Maintenance Assessment for Research Reactors, the Integrated Safety Assessment of Research Reactors and the Integrated Nuclear Infrastructure Review for a new Research Reactor. The IAEA also provides guidelines for reviewing the safety and assessing the operation and maintenance of research reactors. The IRRUR guidelines not only provide information on the preparation, implementation and reporting of IRRUR missions but also support self-assessments by operating organizations of research reactor facilities. In 2020, the IAEA launched an e-learning course on strategic planning for enhancing the utilization of research reactors. 

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