Exploring Nuclear Reactors for Research and Development

Did you know that Australia was one of the first countries to build a civil research reactor? Operating from 1958 to 2007, the High Flux Australian Reactor (HIFAR) was built for materials research. 

HIFAR was a vital part of medicine and industry, producing most of Australia’s radioisotopes in its time. According to the World Nuclear Association, it had the highest level of availability of any research reactor in the world. After it closed in January 2007, it was superseded by OPAL – the Open Pool Australian Lightwater reactor.

HIFAR facility

What is a Nuclear Research Reactor?

Compared to a power reactor which produces heat for electricity, a research reactor like HIFAR is solely a “neutron factory” for scientific research and the production of radioisotopes. These are essential in medical diagnosis and cancer therapy. 

Aside from producing radioisotopes for the medical industry, Australia’s Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO), which housed HIFAR and now OPAL, has a strong reputation in the silicon irradiation business. Silicon irradiation or neutron transmutation doping (NTD) is changing the properties of silicon to make it highly conductive to electricity. These are useful in power grid infrastructures, high-speed trains, the automotive industry and more. With these purposes, we’ll see how research reactors are just as important as power plants. 

But unlike power reactors, research reactors are smaller and operate at lower temperatures with lower amounts of nuclear fuel.

Two common designs of a research reactor are:

NC State‘s PULSTAR Reactor & a photo of a TRIGA reactor core
  1. Pool-type reactor – the core is immersed in an open pool of water which acts as a neutron moderator, cooling agent and radiation shield
  2. TRIGA (Training, Research, Isotopes, General Atomics) – this type is versatile—it can operate at steady-state or safely be pulsed to very high power levels for fractions of a second

As of June 2021, the IAEA research reactor database includes 223 operational research reactors, many of which we can find in university campuses. 52 of these 223 reactors are in Russia and 50 in the USA.

Are Research Reactors Safe?

Nuclear research facilities are safe! The radioactive wastes from the used fuel of research reactors are classified as intermediate-level waste (ILW). Since they use a minimum amount of fuel, these reactors have a very low risk of radiation exposure and theft of material.

Like power reactors, research reactors are under safety regulations. To keep staff and the community safe from health hazards, ANSTO facilities treat and filter emissions before they discharge them. The Australian Radiation Protection & Nuclear Safety Agency (ARPANSA) also independently monitors nuclear facilities in the country.

Radiation Monitoring in Nuclear Facilities

Although research reactors run on less fuel and produce less radioactive waste, the facilities are still subject to safety requirements and regulations. 

In Australia, each state and territory enforces its respective regulations on radiation safety. Organisations or enterprises are then responsible to create and implement and regularly review their radiation management plan. They must comply with regulations and train their workers including contractors. The annual dose limit for occupational exposure is 20 mSv.

For real-time radiation monitoring needs, connect with the SensaWeb team here or at our email address: info@sensaweb.com.au. You can also call us at +61 415 409 467.

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