From High to Low

by Pablo Adelfang and Ira Goldman

The IAEA is helping to reduce the use of high-risk nuclear fuel at the world’s research reactors.

Research reactors play a key role in the development of peaceful uses of atomic energy. They are used for the production of isotopes for medicine and industry, for research in physics, biology and materials science, and for scientific education and training. They also continue to play an important role in support of nuclear power programmes.

The IAEA’s data shows there are 249 operational research reactors worldwide. Of these, more than 100 reactors are still fuelled with highly enriched uranium (HEU). It is considered high-risk nuclear material since it can be easily used for a nuclear explosive device.

As part of a developing international norm to minimize and eventually eliminate HEU in civilian nuclear applications, research reactor operators increasingly are working with national and international agencies. They are being encouraged and supported to improve their physical security arrangements, convert their reactors to low-enriched uranium (LEU) fuel, and ship irradiated fuel back to the country of origin.


Reducing Use of Highly Enriched Uranium

For more than twenty years the IAEA has been supporting international efforts associated with reducing the amount of HEU in international commerce. Projects and activities have directly supported a programme the United States initiated in 1978, called Reduced Enrichment for Research and Test Reactors (RERTR). The IAEA’s work additionally supports efforts to return research reactor fuel to the country where it was originally enriched—so-called “take back” activities.

IAEA initiatives have included the development and maintenance of several databases with information related to research reactors and research reactor spent fuel inventories. These databases have been essential in planning and managing both RERTR and take-back programmes. Other Agency activities through technical cooperation and other channels have supported the conversion of research reactors to using lower enriched fuels.

In other ways, the IAEA supports the exchange of information among experts. It co-sponsors annual RERTR international meetings (in late October 2006, South Africa hosts this gathering). In cooperation with Norway, the Agency also organized the June 2006 “International Symposium on Minimization of Highly Enriched Uranium in the Civilian Nuclear Sector.” Consensus at the meeting indicated that LEU can be used for almost all applications in which HEU is currently used.

IAEA support of RERTR and the take-back programmes was strengthened in 2004, following the establishment in the United States of the Global Threat Reduction Initiative (GTRI) and ensuing recommendations of the RERTR meeting. The common goal is to reduce both proliferation and security risks by eliminating or consolidating inventories of high-risk material.

This article outlines a few of the areas where the IAEA is concentrating its efforts.


Technical Support & Assistance

The Agency’s regular programme activities are focused on establishing the technical foundation for HEU minimization. This specifically includes supporting research reactor fuel conversion to LEU, radioisotope production from LEU, and providing overall programmatic support for fresh and spent fuel shipments from research reactors.

Additionally, national and international efforts are supported to develop, qualify, and license LEU research reactor fuel. A guidebook is being developed for use in negotiations of fuel supply and to support fuel development activities. Fuel element manufacturers and national laboratories have developed fuel types suitable for LEU utilization in most of the world’s research reactors.

In recent years, requests for IAEA assistance for research reactor conversion have increased considerably. In some cases, such as in Chile, technical assistance was provided for the fabrication and qualification of domestically produced LEU fuel. In other cases, as with the TRIGA research reactor in Romania, the IAEA procured commercially produced LEU fuel assemblies to complete the conversion. In Portugal, the IAEA is supporting the purchase of a full LEU core for the conversion of a research reactor, and in Poland, is procuring LEU fuel for conversion of the Maria reactor.

In Libya, technical assistance supported quality-control inspections of the fuel acquired under a trilateral arrangement with the USA and Russia for the conversion of the Tajoura critical assembly and research reactor. The Agency is providing a pool-side monitoring and visual inspection system, and training and technical assistance for its use.

Bulgaria, Kazakhstan, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan also have requested assistance under national technical cooperation projects regarding LEU core conversions. And a national project with Jamaica will be initiated for full-core conversion of its SLOWPOKE reactor, which will receive technical and financial assistance from Canada and the USA.

While many research reactors still need to be converted to LEU fuel, the IAEA is already looking ahead and considering an expanded scope for future conversion efforts. A meeting in February 2006 of representatives from both government and non-governmental organizations prepared an updated list of operating facilities using HEU. Also examined were other facilities that use HEU, such as critical assemblies, pulsed reactors, and civil propulsion reactors. Follow-up meetings are planned.


Production of Medical Radioisotopes

An element known as molybdenum-99 (Mo-99), whose decay product is technecium-99m, is the most widely used medical radioisotope in the world. It accounts for over 20 million diagnostic tests yearly. The vast majority of Mo-99 is produced by four major commercial firms using HEU targets. However, in recent years, Argentina and Australia have been able to demonstrate the technical feasibility of producing Mo-99 from LEU.
In 2005, the IAEA started a coordinated research project involving ten countries. The aim is to develop techniques for small-scale, indigenous production of Mo-99 using LEU or neutron activation. Institutions in Chile, Kazakhstan, Libya, Pakistan and Romania are receiving technical advice and assistance from Argentina, India, Indonesia, the Republic of Korea, and the USA.


Russian “Take-Back” Activities

The Russian Research Reactor Fuel Return (RRRFR) programme focuses on the recovery of irradiated research reactor fuel originally supplied by Russia to facilities outside the country. It evolved from IAEA efforts. In 2000, Director General Mohamed ElBaradei wrote to fifteen countries possessing such material, inquiring as to their interest in returning such material to Russia. A series of “Tripartite Initiative” meetings were organized that helped facilitate conclusion of a USA-Russia bilateral agreement in May 2004.

The main vehicle for assisting countries in this “take-back” initiative is an IAEA technical cooperation project called “Repatriation, Management and Disposition of Fresh and/or Spent Nuclear Fuel from Research Reactors”. The objective is support the return to Russia of fresh or irradiated HEU and LEU fuel.

A grant from the US-based non-governmental organization Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) has enabled the IAEA to play an important role in planning for the “take-back” of Russian research reactor spent fuel. The IAEA is organizing and carrying out, with US and Russian experts, fact-finding missions to research reactor sites in 12 countries. This grant continues to support technical and project management activities related to supporting the RRRFR as a whole. It includes developing workshops, training, and guidance documents, and developing and implementing resource mobilization activities for the programme.

In August 2002, the IAEA cooperated with the US, Russia, Serbia and NTI for the removal of 48 kg of fresh HEU from the Vinca Institute to the Russian Federation. NTI provided $5 million to three IAEA technical cooperation projects in Serbia. This was part of an agreement with the governments of the USA, Russian Federation, and Serbia.
The IAEA projects aim to safely remove 2.5 metric tonnes of irradiated HEU and LEU fuel from Serbia and transport it to the Mayak Reprocessing Plant in the Russian Fede-ration; to improve radioactive waste management facilities at Vinca (including building a secure storage facility for high-activity sources); and to plan for the decommissioning of the Vinca research reactor.

The spent fuel project has achieved important progress in 2006. The IAEA is in final negotiations with a contractor to repackage and transport the spent HEU and LEU fuel at Vinca. In addition to funding from NTI, the US Department of Energy has committed to provide resources to package, transport, and reprocess the HEU spent fuel, and the European Union appears likely to also commit significant resources to the project. This would result in available resources of approximately $15 million, with about another $10 million needed to complete the project by 2009. (Also see, “The Clock is Ticking”)


Fresh and Spent Fuel Shipments

The IAEA carries out studies related to planning fresh and spent fuel shipments. They include examining transport cask options, assessment of transport routes, and providing advice for handling deteriorated research reactor fuel.

Since September 2003, with extrabudgetary funding from the US Department of Energy (DOE), the IAEA has contracted for transportation services for seven shipments of fresh HEU from six countries (Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Latvia, Libya, Romania, and Uzbekistan). The result has been the removal of about 120 kilograms of fresh HEU.

Another five to six shipments are being planned for the second half of 2006.

In addition, the IAEA is procuring ten high-capacity transport and storage casks at a value of 4 million Euro (contributed by DOE). Available by December 2006, these will initially be used for shipment of spent fuel from the Nuclear Research Institute, Rez, in the Czech Republic. Thereafter, they will be available on a lease-free basis for other irradiated research reactor fuel shipments under the Russian take-back programme.


Contributing to Global Goals

The IAEA contributes significantly to international efforts serving the goal of reducing the use of high-risk nuclear fuel. Programmes for the minimization of HEU involve countries around the world that are home to research reactors.

Through Agency-supported channels, they are receiving technical support and assistance in key areas. The work involves partnerships with governments and non-governmental organizations, and experts with a wide range of experience in the field. Considerable progress has been made, and the cooperative foundation has been set for further advances in the years ahead.


Sidebar: The Clock is Ticking

Pablo Adelfang is the IAEA Cross-Cutting Coordinator for Research Reactor Activities and Head of the Research Reactor Unit in the Department of Nuclear Energy.

Ira Goldman is Scientific Secretary in the Research Reactor Unit.

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