For more than 60 years, research reactors have been one of the locomotives of nuclear science and technology. According the IAEA Research Reactor Database (RRDB), to date approximately 670 research reactors have been built, and some 240 of these facilities, in 55 countries, continue to operate. In the past five years, six new research reactors began operation or their "first criticality" while a further three are presently under construction and two more are planned. Many more projects are under discussion in several countries.
Member States look to the IAEA for guidance and coordination in sustaining and strengthening these essential scientific instruments. In reviewing the current situation, IAEA Deputy Director General of the Department of Nuclear Sciences and Applications, Mohamad Daud, said, "research reactor operating organizations need to overcome challenges such as effective utilization, the on-going management of ageing facilities, pressures for increased vigilance with respect to non-proliferation, and shrinking resources, both financial and human, while fulfilling an expanding role in support of nuclear technology development." He noted that nuclear research and technology's continuing advance relies upon research reactors that "operate safely and reliably, are adequately utilized, refurbished when necessary, provided with adequate proliferation-resistant fuel cycle services and safely decommissioned at the end of life." Daud emphasized that the IAEA plays a key role by "coordinating and implementing an array of activities that together provide broad support for research reactor operating organizations."
The IAEA has a long history of addressing these challenges through its competence in providing support to improve Member States' utilization of research reactors, leading the development of safety standards and norms. The Agency also provides knowledge-sharing services to research reactors operating organizations by disseminating good practices for all aspects of the nuclear fuel cycle and in the planning and implementing of decommissioning activities. In its programmes, the IAEA promotes continued scientific research and technological development using research reactors by highlighting the unique products and services these facilities can offer.
Many Member States look to the IAEA to coordinate the worldwide effort in promoting the safe and sustainable use of research reactors, in addition to seeking help in solving specific problems. Through networking, the IAEA helps improve research reactors utilization rates and safety by arranging for researchers to share facilities, optimizing resources and competencies, effective application of the IAEA Code of Conduct on the Safety of Research Reactors and Safety Standards, and exchanging operating experience.
The major networking event for research reactor users and operators is the International Conference on Research Reactors organized every four years by the IAEA. The event was held for from 14 to 18 November 2011 in Rabat - the first time in Africa - and hosted by the Kingdom of Morocco through the National Centre for Nuclear Energy, Sciences and Technology (CNESTEN). It focused on safe management and effective utilization.
The 2011 Conference in Rabat was the largest gathering of this kind thus far and followed similar conferences held in Portugal in 1999, Chile in 2003, and Australia in 2007. Africa's newest research reactor, MA-R1 TRIGA Mark II of Morocco, was featured during the technical tour. The Morocco Conference facilitated the exchange of information on current and new research reactors, provided a forum for research reactor users, operators, managers, regulators, designers and suppliers to share experience, exchange opinions and to discuss common challenges, options and strategies.
New challenges were also considered, particularly in those areas which are receiving greater international attention: securing radioisotope production, human resources and infrastructure capacity building, sustainability of research reactor programmes, as well as initiatives for new research reactor facilities.
The crisis created by the shortfall in the supply of medical radioisotopes from 2008 to 2010, Molybdenum 99 in particular, is a case in point. This vitally important radioisotope is used in thousands of medical procedures globally every day. Its supply was threatened when aging research reactors, the major producers, could no longer meet demand. While a reasonable restoration of supplies is already in place, this Conference was keenly influenced by the events of 2008-2010.
The lessons learned in improved planning and management of aged research reactors, additional safety reviews and analysis, as well as utilizing more research reactors for irradiation services were extensively discussed.
As a number of Member States consider embarking on a nuclear power programme, interest has grown in research reactors' utility as nuclear education and training tools that support nuclear infrastructure development and safe management issues.
The Conference concluded with summaries and recommendations on a number of topics, as well as feedback following the events of the Fukushima-Daiichi NPP accident and its consequences for the research reactor community.