The IAEA Internet Reactor Laboratory (IRL) Programme is Expanding to Africa

Staff at the Tanzania Atomic Energy Commission observe a live experiment being conducted at the host reactor CEA ISIS, Saclay (France), as part of the coordination meeting of the regional TC project RAF1005. (Photo: IAEA)

Nuclear engineers and technicians from the Tanzania Atomic Energy Commission are now able to participate in live reactor experiments at a reactor facility in France, using the IAEA’s Internet Research Reactor (IRL) programme. The first test of this technology in United Republic of Tanzania took place in September 2016 with the host facility, ISIS research reactor (Saclay, France), supported under a regional IAEA technical cooperation programme.1

The IAEA’s IRL programme was established in 2015 to provide nuclear engineering students or related background young specialists, usually from countries without a research reactor, with practical reactor physics experience. The tool enables live immersion into reactor technology and operation in a remote location by linking a host reactor with university classrooms in other countries. Real-time signals and views from the reactor are sent from the host reactor over the internet to the participating classroom, where students are able to see a live display of the reactor’s control panel. Although it is not a replacement for hands-on training, IRL is a cost-effective way to provide students with concrete practical experience. Students can participate in real time in the reactor experiment, interact with the operating team and collect real-time data. This can be analysed instantaneously or off-line. It is certainly a more realistic and practical approach than using a simulator!

IRL has been developed on the basis of a distance learning pilot project set up at the Jordan University of Science and Technology (JUST), which connected the university with a host research reactor located in North Carolina State University (NCSU), USA. The concept was originally developed within a U.S. Department of Energy funded research reactor consortium, through which NCSU successfully demonstrated that an internet link could deliver practical experiments from its PULSTAR reactor to students at other universities in the U.S.

Following the success of the NCSU–JUST distance learning project, and with financial support from the U.S. State Department, the IAEA began to put into place the global IRL project. Host reactor facilities were identified in two regions. For Latin America, this facility is the RA-6 research reactor, which is located at the National Atomic Energy Commission’s Bariloche research centre (Centro Atómico Bariloche) in Argentina; while in Europe, the facility is the ISIS research reactor, located at the CEA-National Institute for Nuclear Science and Technology at the Saclay research centre in France. Both reactors have been used extensively in both national and international nuclear education and training.

The near term goal is to expand the project with well-suited and experienced host research reactor facilities in both Africa and the Asia and the Pacific region. This will allow the IRL to add a practical component to the nuclear curriculum in a large number of countries in a highly cost-effective way.

In Africa, while the implementation of a host research reactor facility will start in 2017, two institutions had already presented themselves as recipient facilities: the Tanzania Atomic Energy Commission and the Tunisian National Centre of Nuclear Sciences and Technologies. To initiate the project, it was agreed that the ISIS reactor facility at Saclay will be broadcasting to these two African countries as well as to the countries it already covers in Europe: Belarus and Lithuania. Thanks to the TC programme and funds provided through the Peaceful Uses Initiative, both centres in Africa have received the equipment necessary, and both have been receiving periodic training since 2016. IRL in Africa will undoubtedly contribute greatly to nuclear capacity building at the national and regional level in Africa.

Zooming in to the live video transmission from France, illustrating different camera views from the host reactor CEA ISIS, Saclay (France). (Photo: IAEA)

1 RAF1005: Strengthening the Capacity for Research Reactor Safety and Applications in Africa (AFRA)