Poland’s MARIA research reactor to be upgraded

27 June 2023

The Polish government is seeking to upgrade Poland’s only operating reactor, MARIA, located at the National Centre for Nuclear Research (NCBJ - Narodowym Centrum Badan Jadrowych) in Otwock, Swierk. This would ensure its continued operation after 2025 when its licence expires, until at least 2050.

The Council of Ministers has included a draft resolution on the issue in its list of legislative and programme tasks. The project was prepared by the Ministry of Climate & Environment.

According to the Ministry’s statement, the MARIA reactor is unique in Poland and in the world as a producer of radiopharmaceuticals and also for Poland’s economy and science community. “After more than 40 years of operation, almost all technological systems of the reactor require modernisation, including those necessary to ensure its safe operation.”

The modernisation will cover five main areas:

  • electricity supply systems,
  • control and security systems,
  • ventilation system,
  • dosimetry systems,
  • other modernisations (including technological facilities, emergency warning system and fan cooling).

According to the resolution the modernisation will take place between 2023 and 2027 and will cost cover the years 2023 – 2027, and the cost of this project will be about PLN91.7m ($22.6m). The contractor will be NCBJ.

The possibility of financing the modernisation from the state budget was included in an amendment to the Act on the Preparation and Implementation of Investments in Nuclear Power Facilities & Accompanying Investments. It was signed in mid-March by President Andrzej Duda and has now entered into force.

The 30 MWt MARIA research nuclear reactor was named in honour of the Polish Nobel Prize winner Maria Sklodowska-Curie. Its construction began in June 1970, and it was launched in December 1974. It was designed and built by Polish specialists.

It is a water and beryllium moderated high flux pool type reactor with graphite reflector and pressurised channels containing concentric six-tube assemblies of fuel elements.

As well as radioisotope production, it is used for:

  • testing of fuel and structural materials for nuclear power engineering;
  • neutron transmutation doping of silicon;
  • neutron modification of materials;
  • research in neutron and condensed matter physics neutron radiography;
  • neutron activation analysis;
  • neutron beams in medicine; and
  • training in the field of reactor physics & technology.

According to Polish press reports, there are ongoing staff problems at the MARIA reactor involving pay. Employees waited two months for a decision from the director on remuneration only to be told there was no money, Energetyka24 reported. In April, staff had sent a letter to the director asking for a salary increase, stating that their current salaries were approaching the minimum wage level. This was making it impossible to hire new staff or keep those currently employed. After receiving no reply and sending a second letter,

NCBJ management responded on 16 June with the following explanation:

“For approximately three years, the financial situation of NCBJ has been systematically deteriorating for obvious reasons – first the pandemic and the economic crisis resulting from it, and then the war in Ukraine and high inflation caused a significant increase in the costs of operating the Institute in the absence of revaluation of subsidies received by NCBJ. The Institute's expenses increased, while the receipts did not change significantly."

The letter indicated that the full costs of maintaining the reactor itself and the infrastructure needed for its operation exceed by about PLN10m commercial revenues resulting from its operation. “This is nobody's fault – there is no research reactor in the world that would only make a living from commercial revenues, so it is obvious, that a special subsidy is needed to cover the operating costs of MARIA,” the letter said

The NCBJ management indicated that finance for the reactor and the entire Centre comes from a targeted subsidy for the operation of the Special Research Device (MARIA). These funds are allocated in principle entirely for the purchase of nuclear fuel. There are also subsidies from the Ministry of Education & Science as well as grants and projects. However, subsidies from the Ministry of Climate & the Environment, NCBJ’s supervising ministry, has been significantly cut: from PLN4.5m to PLN1m.

The letter notes that management of has developed two strategic programmes, one of which has the possibility of “releasing funds for salary increases throughout NCBJ to the average level in the Warsaw agglomeration". It is a programme prepared jointly with the Department of Innovation & Development at the Ministry of Education, which has already been accepted by the head of the ministry and submitted for approval to the Minister of Finance. However, there is no guarantee that it will be accepted.

Energetyka24 comments: “Work on ensuring the further functioning of MARIA should have been undertaken long ago – especially taking into account ambitious announcements and declarations regarding the development of Polish nuclear energy. It remains to be hoped that work on the strategic programme will be successful for the crew and the entire NCBJ.” These financial difficulties, of course, also raise questions about the planned modernisation of the reactor.

Image: The Maria research reactor (courtesy of PAP / Piotr Nowak)

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