Subcritical Assembly for Training, Education and Research begins operation in Philippines

31 August 2022

After more than three decades, the Philippines is again operating a nuclear facility, the Subcritical Assembly for Training, Education and Research (SATER), according to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). In 2014, a proposal was accepted to utilise fuel elements of a shutdown research reactor for training and education, which the IAEA has been supporting through a series of technical cooperation projects. In the first project, launched in 2016, IAEA assisted the Philippine Nuclear Research Institute (PNRI) to build capacity in reactor design, neutron dosimetry and regulatory matters related to research reactors.

A second cooperation project followed in 2020 and is ongoing to further build capacity, particularly in reactor engineering and operation, reactor utilisation and development of a reactor training programme to sustain local capacity-building activities. “With nuclear power in consideration for the country’s future energy mix and a demand for nuclear technology in different sectors, it is essential to build capacity and develop a new generation of scientists and workforce in this field,” said Syahril Syahril, IAEA Programme Management Officer for the Philippines.

A presidential executive order earlier this year outlined the government's position for the inclusion of nuclear energy in the Philippines' energy mix. US Westinghouse built a NPP the Philippines in the late 1970s, but the project was stopped in 1986 following environmental protests and financial irregularities.

In June, PNRI loaded 44 nuclear fuel rods into the core of the newly constructed tank of SATER. The fuel rods had been previously stored unused for more than 30 years. The new SATER facility is housed at the Philippine Research Reactor 1 (PRR-1) building and will remain in a subcritical state, which means the nuclear fission chain reaction is dependent on neutrons from an external source.

The 1MWt PRR-1 research reactor had reached criticality in 1963, but has been in extended shut down since 1988. “The activation of PRR-1 SATER is a milestone for the Philippines, as the facility will provide significant support in re-establishing nuclear capabilities in the country,” said Alvie Asuncion-Astronomo, Associate Scientist and former Head of PNRI’s Nuclear Reactor Operations Section. In the past two years, IAEA assisted the local regulatory and operating staff by providing recommendations on licensing and commissioning PRR-1 SATER. IAEA and international experts participated in various on-site missions.

PRR-1 SATER will support recently launched nuclear education programmes at the University of the Philippines Diliman and Mapua University. In the field of research, it will be used for reactor physics experiments, as well as a demonstration facility for neutron irradiation and neutron activation analysis.

“PRR-1 SATER is expected to be a training reactor for research reactor operators, regulators and users. It also aims to increase the research reactor stakeholder base in the country,” Asuncion-Astronomo said. “The facility is projected to open the whole scientific field of reactor physics and engineering for Filipinos and to pave the way for the Philippines to strengthen its niche in the nuclear field.”

The facility is expected to conclude commissioning tests and become fully operational by 2023.

Image: Fuel is lowered into the core of the PRR-1 SATER (Image: PNRI)

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