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Supporting the Operation and Safety of Research Reactors: Exploring the IAEA's Peer Review Missions

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Research reactors provide a wealth of benefits, from the production of radioisotopes for cancer treatment to training and education. To help countries to embark on new research reactor programmes or operate existing ones safely and get the most out of them, the IAEA offers several peer review services. Participants at a virtual event held on the margins of the 64th IAEA General Conference learned more about these services and heard from countries that have benefitted from them.

“Our peer review services, conducted at the request of Member States, help ensure the safe, secure and sustainable operation of research reactors,” said Mikhail Chudakov, Deputy Director General and Head of the Department of Nuclear Energy, in his opening remarks. “The majority of operating research reactors were built 40 or more years ago, and so effective ageing management and efficient utilization are crucial for their long-term sustainability.”

Currently, 248 research reactors in 55 countries are in operation worldwide. Like their larger, electricity-generating counterparts, research reactors need to be supported by an adequate national infrastructure such as a legal framework, human resource development, safety regulations as well as safeguards obligations.

The virtual event, which was remotely attended by 131 participants from 50 countries, explored the IAEA’s four peer review services on research reactors:

These peer review missions, available upon request, involve teams of international, multidisciplinary experts who compare actual practices with IAEA standards for nuclear safety and international good practices, as well as with IAEA guidance for security and operation.

Complementing presentations from IAEA experts and a Q&A session, experts from the Czech Republic, Italy, the Netherlands, Nigeria, Thailand, the United States and Uzbekistan discussed their experience with IAEA peer review missions.

In Italy, which operates four research reactors and one critical assembly, an IRRUR mission at the TRIGA Mark II research reactor at the University of Pavia’s Laboratory of Applied Nuclear Energy (LENA) was carried out in April 2019.  The mission team assessed the reactor’s strategic plan and utilization as well as factors that could limit the utilization of the reactor to its full potential. The mission resulted in recommendations and suggestions for potential areas of improvement.

“The mission helped us to develop a systematic approach in the valuation of assets and planning for the development of LENA,” said Andrea Salvini, Director of LENA. “LENA’s integrated management system benefited from the implementation of performance indicators used in the IRRUR mission as well as the drafting of a SWOT analysis document which will help us optimize our utilization of the TRIGA Mark II going forward.”

Nigeria hosted an INIR-RR mission in February 2018 as part of its preparation for constructing a new multipurpose research reactor near the capital city of Abuja. This reactor will provide additional services, complementing the country’s already operating 30 KW miniature neutron source reactor at the Centre for Energy Research and Training of the Nigeria Atomic Energy Commission.

The mission team identified several areas where Nigeria could improve, including updating their human resources development and succession plan. The mission team also noted that Nigeria is making efficient use of resources within national organizations involved in the project.  

“Nigeria has benefitted from the expert advice provided during the INIR-RR mission, and this will greatly help us as we move forward with our multipurpose reactor,” said Sunday Jonah, Professor at the Centre for Energy Research and Training in Nigeria. “We have developed a new project management team in line with the recommendations of the INIR-RR mission, and will soon submit a revised timeline of activities for the IAEA’s review.”

In March 2018, Uzbekistan hosted an OMARR mission to assess the operational and maintenance practices at the country’s WWR-SM research reactor at the Institute of Nuclear Physics of the Uzbekistan Academy of Sciences. The reactor has been in operation since 1959 and has undergone relevant upgrading throughout its operational life. The team advised on new opportunities for plant upgrading and on the implementation of an effective aging management plan.

“The OMARR mission helped us to conduct an in-depth analysis of the WWR-SM reactor operation and understand how we can improve in several areas,” said Fakhrulla Kungurov, Laboratory Head at the Institute of Nuclear Physics. “The implementation of the mission team’s recommendations has already led, for example, to enhanced reactor operation and more effective ageing management.” The future implementation of all other recommendations will help the reactor operate safely and reliably for many years to come, he added.

The Netherlands has extensive experience with research reactors, with two currently in operation, one of which - the High Flux Reactor (HFR), achieved first criticality in 1961. Several INSARR reviews have been conducted at the HFR, most recently in 2019, to assess organizational and management aspects and technical areas including radiation protection and safety procedures and regulations.

“We have hosted four INSARR missions over the last 20 years, and the discussions we have had together with the recommendations received during the missions have contributed considerably to the safe operations of the reactor,” said Onne Wouters, Reactor Manager of the HFR. “As a result, these missions have made a significant contribution to the reliable production of radioisotopes as well as to the performance of irradiation services at HFR.”  

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