Expanding capacity

1 December 2017

Dr Andrea Borio di Tigliole, head of the Research Reactor Section at the International Atomic Energy Agency speaks about plans to increase research reactor offerings over the coming years.


How important are research reactors to building competence for nuclear programmes?

What we understand from the experience of our member states is that when you want to build nuclear competence, having the possibility of accessing research reactors is beneficial. This could mean going to an existing research reactor to gain hands-on experience of how the facility is operated and used. It could mean being in contact through IT options such as the internet; or it could mean building a research reactor. Because there is this clear view of the benefit of accessing research reactors, we decided to develop schemes to support member states that want to access these research reactors.

What support can you offer member states?

We have a whole programme to support any member state wanting to build a research reactor, following the IAEA- developed “Milestones” approach. We have a Milestones approach for nuclear power and a graded one for research reactors. For newcomers, this involves ensuring that the national infrastructure is able to support the development of such a project. And then we have tools for member states that want to access research reactors but have not built one, or member states that have research reactors oriented towards services, which may not be suitable for education, training or capacity building because of operating schedules. Then there are countries that are considering embarking on nuclear power. Some of them see building a research reactor as a first step towards nuclear power. So there is a very broad spectrum of possibilities and a large number of countries that want to develop nuclear competence.

So we offer them different opportunities. One is very cost effective – the internet reactor laboratory – which links an operating reactor in one country with a university classroom in another through the internet. It is a fruitful interaction between the students and the operators of the facility, even if they are thousands of kilometres apart. The students can attend live experiments. They can see the operation of the reactor. It is not the same as being at the facility, but it is a good option to include a practical component in academic curricula.

When did this begin?

The project kicked off in 2015 by ensuring that the hardware and software were in place and that the participants were speaking the same language and using the same protocols. We are talking about different countries. We have Argentina broadcasting for Cuba, Ecuador and Colombia. We have France broadcasting for Belarus, Lithuania, Tanzania and Tunisia. So we began in 2015 with a one-week workshop in which the recipients visited the provider and took part in experiments, to check the lab protocols of the experiments, to ensure they had the same approach. In fact, the first discussions took place in 2012/13 when the host reactors were designated. Broadcasts began in the second half of 2016. The second batch of broadcasts is on-going.

There are five or six lectures a year – five from France and six from Argentina. They are included in the curriculum for nuclear engineers or nuclear physicists. It is a remote distance laboratory. It’s very effective because it is live.

How is the Agency involved?

The Agency played a big role in setting up the infrastructure. The broadcaster and the recipients all have agreements with
the Agency to establish the legal basis for the project. Funds come mainly from the US Department of State through the Peaceful Uses Initiative. We have established common lab protocols. We run training for the recipients and harmonise the protocols for the exercises through Agency meetings. We support and send equipment for the recipients, and we monitor progress to ensure everything is proceeding properly.

We are also planning to expand the project in 2018 to the Asia and Pacific region with the broadcasting research reactor located in South Korea and to the African region with the broadcasting reactor located in Morocco.

What other support do you offer apart from the internet reactor laboratory?

We enable students or young professionals to gain experience at operating research reactors through regional reactor schools. These are two-week schools. They may be from a country that is planning to build a research reactor or just wants to improve the utilisation of an existing one in an academic framework and to gain experience of some capability which is not available at their facility.

We make sure that the exercise protocols are reviewed by the Agency, and we support the participation of students and professionals in these schools mainly via the Technical Cooperation Programme.

There is also the opportunity for intermediate training through the East European Research Reactor Initiative (EERRI) Group Fellowship Course. The EERRI course was established with the support of the Agency and includes Austria, Hungary, Czech Republic and Slovenia. They co-ordinate, in cooperation with the Agency, a six-week course every year which has a hands-on component and also addresses wider topics related to nuclear development such as safety, security, safeguards, radiation protection, the legal framework and an introduction to nuclear power plant technology.

Of course, there is a focus on research reactors but also on areas which can be applied to other facilities.

We contribute lectures for the course and we help to develop the curriculum as well as provide financial support to the participants, mainly through the Technical Cooperation Programme. It is an established training course, but every year there is some improvement. Since 2009 when this was initiated, more than 100 people have attended the courses.

What about more advanced training?

The last initiative is advanced training at international centres based on research reactors (ICERR).

ICERRs are first class organisations operating research reactors which also have analytical and hot labs. They have competence and expertise in a large number of topics in the nuclear area and can provide specific training based on the needs of “affiliates” from the member states. The Agency designates the ICERR and then facilitates contact from member states, with the aim of matching demand and supply. We promote the capability of these organisations, we advertise them, and we support member states in making known their requirements in such a way that the ICERR can address these needs.

Although the Agency does a lot of work behind the scenes to facilitate the scheme, the relationship is bilateral between the ICERR and the affiliate. We believe this is a very good mechanism because it mobilises a huge infrastructure, not through the Agency but directly.

The fact that there is a bilateral arrangement between the affiliate and the ICERR is an advantage. It could be an agreement or a contract. It is an official relationship which means that the supplier needs to commit something, at least in the medium term, and also the recipient has to commit.

France’s Atomic and Alternative Energies Commission (CEA) is the first of the four ICERRs that the IAEA has so far designated. CEA has to date subscribed to six arrangements with six different countries. The Russian nuclear research centre RIAR in Dimitrovgrad has been designated as an ICERR and is now offering access to its research reactors and other facilities to IAEA member states. During the recent General Conference, the IAEA also designated the Belgian Nuclear Research Centre SCK•CEN and the US DOE Idaho and Oak Ridge National Laboratories as ICERRs. We expect these centres to provide advanced training. It is a recent scheme, which began in 2014. We are also working in-house to stimulate the use of these capabilities through our technical co- operation programme.

Are you expecting to establish more of these centres?

Yes, we are aiming to have 10-15 ICERRs worldwide in the coming 3-4 years. We will also be facilitating co-ordination between ICERRs at the end of this year to enable the ICERRs to talk to each other and to optimise what they offer, to try to avoid each providing the same kind of capability. The aim is to specialise so that they cover all the needs of IAEA member state seeking such capabilities. The ICERR scheme is also expected to enhance the capability of research and development worldwide because it could be more easily shared than it is now through the neutral framework of the Agency.

How many research reactors are now approaching decommissioning?

Two thirds (approximately 500) of the research reactors have already been decommissioned or are in an extended shutdown state. One third (approximately 250) are still in operation in 55 member states. We, of course, need to support these facilities both in decommissioning and long-term operation. We offer support to ensure sustainable long-term operation of these facilities through peer review missions such as the OMARR (Operation and Maintenance Assessment for Research Reactors) and the INSARR (Integrated Safety Assessment of Research Reactors).

The OMARR is conducted by our Section in the Department of Nuclear Energy and it is technology and performance oriented and based on international good practices, while the INSARR is conducted by colleagues from the Research Reactor Safety Section in the Department of Nuclear Safety and Security and it is focused on safety aspects and based on IAEA safety standards.

Most of the research reactors are old, but their life cycle is long – generally 60 years, but there are some which are expected to be extended up to 80 or even 100 years. OMARR offers advice on how to improve operational performance and procedures. It can also support planning for a refurbishment or the establishment of proper ageing management programmes. The OMARR and INSARR missions complement each other.

How many newcomer countries are considering building research reactors?

There are eight research reactors under construction. Some 25-30 countries have expressed interest in having a new research reactor. Half of them are newcomers (around 15), but there are also countries already operating research reactors which want to build a new facility. The newcomers with a research reactor under construction are Jordan (where the facility is completed and expected to receive the operating licence within a few months) and Saudi Arabia (where the works are expected to start in the few coming months). The others under construction are not in newcomer countries.

What is the attraction of a research reactor to newcomer countries?

Some newcomers (about half) want to develop nuclear technology for improving the standard of living in their countries. They are not necessarily considering a nuclear power programme but see nuclear technology as a means for advancement.

The production of medical radioisotopes is one of the main reasons for wanting a research reactor for domestic and eventually possibly for regional needs. It is a key application of the facility, though quite challenging... Others want to develop nuclear power, but believe it is better to progress gradually – to begin with a research reactor and develop the related infrastructure and to begin developing human resources. The second phase would be a nuclear power plant.

Building a research reactor is a sovereign decision of each member state. We assist, upon request, providing guidance based on international good practice and the IAEA safety standards. We can also help by facilitating opportunities to access existing research reactors.  

Dr Andrea Borio di Tigliole is head of the Research Reactor Section at the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Research Reactor The High Flux Isotope Reactor at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (Image credit: Genevieve Martin/ORNL)
Research Reactor Dr Andrea Borio di Tigliole

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