Kazakhstan restarts research reactor with LEU fuel

11 May 2022

Kazakhstan has relaunched its IVG.1M research reactor at the Energy Ministry’s National Nuclear Centre (NNC) after it was adapted to use low-enriched uranium (LEU) fuel. Like many other research reactors, IVG.1M originally used highly enriched uranium (HEU), which is now considered a proliferation risk. The IVG.1M reactor is a research, high-temperature, gas, modernized thermal neutron reactor with a light-water moderator and coolant and with a beryllium neutron reflector.

Since 1978, international agreements supported by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on the conversion of research reactors to LEU fuel have been signed by various countries to address these problems. Kazakhstan signed such an agreement in the early 2000s and a conversion project was launched in 2010 to reduce fuel enrichment in the research reactor to below 20% in accordance with IAEA requirements, while maintaining and improving its performance. NNC specialists, together with American and Russian partners, undertook computational and analytical justification for planned conversion, tested experimental LEU fuel, and then produced standard LEU fuel.

Currently, physical start-up of the IVG.1M reactor is underway as the first stage of its recommissioning. The next stage will be power start-up and the experimental determination of all the necessary characteristics of the new core, after which the reactor will be put into operation, possibly in 2023. It is symbolic that this will be exactly 30 after the IVG.1M reactor was put into operation using HEU fuel following modernisation of the high-temperature gas-cooled reactor IVG.1, which began operation in 1975. IVG.1 was originally intended for testing fuel rods and fuel assemblies. During that upgrade, the gas-cooled reactor core was replaced with a water-cooled core.

Conversion of the IVG.1M reactor to use LEU fuel began in 2010 and by the end of 2013, theoretical and computational work had been completed confirming its feasibility. The conversion was carried out with the support of from the US Department of Energy National Nuclear Safety Administration of the (NNSA).

In 2014, two experimental channels with LEU fuel manufactured by Russia’s FSUE SIA LUCH (chief IVG.1M fuel designer) were supplied for reactor testing and adaptation which continued until 2016. Reactor tests were started in 2017 and completed in October 2019 after reaching the target operating time of 1080 MWh, with a total of 49 reactor start-ups. In order to speed up the testing programme at NNC’s Baikal-1 Research Reactor Complex, a project was implemented to build a new system for the reactor coolant, which reduced the time required to complete the task from three to two years.

NNC was found in 1993 based on the Joint Expedition of NPO Luch, which was founded in 1958 in the Soviet Union by the Institute of Atomic Energy, the Kurchatov Institute and the Podolsk Research Technological Institute. At that time, the focus was on development of nuclear rocket engines (NRE) for ballistic and space rockets. For NRE testing, a bench base of NPO Luch was created, including the IGR and Baikal-1 research reactor complexes in Kazakhstan. Work on NREs and NPPs was carried out until 1989.

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