Highlights from Vienna

5 December 2017

Judith Perera reports from the International Atomic Energy Agency’s General Conference, held 18-22 September in Vienna.

Some 2500 delegates gathered for the Agency’s week-long 61st General Conference, which saw significant measures to strengthen international cooperation in nuclear safety and security and to further the use of nuclear science and technology. Delegates approved the IAEA’s Budget for 2018, with 90 member states pledging to the technical cooperation fund for 2018. Director General Yukiya Amano was re-appointed for another four-year term.


Remediation of legacy uranium sites

The IAEA and its partners including the European Commission (EC) and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) signed a joint commitment on coordinating efforts to achieve the safe and sustainable environmental remediation of uranium legacy sites in Central Asia, under a new strategic master plan (SMP). Parties involved in the project, including the EBRD, the EC, the Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan attended a signing ceremony
in Vienna during a side event of the 61st General Conference.

Uranium mining and processing were prevalent in Central Asia from the mid- 1940s to the 1990s, when planning for end-of-life management was not common. As a result, residues of radioactive and toxic contaminants pose ongoing threats
to the health and the livelihood of people in the region, as do abandoned mines and processing infrastructure. The SMP provides a framework for carrying out remediation activities in Central Asia in a timely, cost- effective and sustainable manner. It was developed with the Central Asian countries by core members of the IAEA’s Coordination Group for Uranium Legacy Sites (CGULS), which was formed in 2012 to help coordinate national and multilateral uranium legacy site remediation activities in Central Asia.

“Our cooperation aims to help the people in the communities affected by the uranium legacy sites. We are working together to help create a safe environment for current and future generations,” said IAEA deputy director general Juan Carlos Lentijo, head of the Department of Nuclear Safety and Security. “Effective coordination will help ensure that remediation will be addressed in a timely, cost-effective and sustainable manner.”

An EBRD statement said the plan lays out a detailed blueprint for environmental remediation of priority sites in the Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. The total cost of measures outlined in the plan is estimated at €210m ($252m), of which €56m has already been made available by the European Union, the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) and the World Bank. The EBRD said work on seven priority sites in the three central Asian countries would be funded by the international Environmental Remediation Account for Central Asia (ERA), managed by EBRD and established in 2015 on the initiative of the EU. The EBRD said the EU is so far the only contributor to the ERA fund with an initial contribution of €16.5m.


Sealed sources

On 19 September the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) announced an initiative to establish qualified technical centres for the long-term management of disused sealed radioactive sources (DSRS).

The IAEA has standards on controlling disused sources and it helps member states implement technologies to recover, condition and store them. “The idea behind this initiative is to increase the worldwide capability to manage DSRS by encouraging countries with well-equipped centres and trained personnel to provide technical services for the management of DSRS, within their countries and regionally,” said Christophe Xerri, director of the IAEA’s division of nuclear fuel cycle and waste technology. “At the IAEA we receive a large number of requests for assistance in characterisation, conditioning and removal of all categories of DSRS.”

The process for defining the technical and human resources requirements necessary to qualify as these centres of reference is ongoing. The IAEA regularly dispatches expert missions to member states to provide advice and guidance for the recovery and conditioning of DSRS. The most recent missions include Honduras in July, Ghana in August and Malaysia in September 2017. These tasks complement IAEA’s capacity-building activities, such as projects for managing radioactive sources from cradle to grave, implemented through the Agency’s technical cooperation programme.


International centres

Belgian Nuclear Research Centre SCK•CEN and the US Department of Energy’s Idaho and Oak Ridge National Laboratories received designations as international centres based on research reactor (ICERR). They will make their research reactors, labs and education and training facilities available to scientists from other countries for training and research and development, representatives of the labs announced at the IAEA General Conference.

“The IAEA ICERR scheme helps IAEA member states access state-of-the-art facilities, and so achieve their national nuclear research and development and capacity building objectives,” IAEA director general Yukiya Amano said. “Through advanced training, ICERRs foster knowledge, build nuclear competence and develop nuclear safety culture.”

The Belgian research reactor BR2 is one of the most powerful and flexible research reactors in the world. It produces 20-25% of the world’s most important radioisotopes, including medical isotopes essential for the diagnosis and treatment of cancer. “This is an outstanding recognition for Belgium. The nuclear expertise and experience obtained through our research and development support the education and training activities with which we transfer knowledge and skills to current and future generations,” said Eric van Walle, director general of SCK•CEN.

The Advanced Test Reactor (ATR) at the Idaho National Laboratory is the most versatile test reactor in the world. It is used to study the effects of radiation on materials and is also capable of producing rare and valuable medical and industrial isotopes. The High Flux Isotope Reactor (HFIR) at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory is the world’s leading source of heavy elements used for research, medicine, and industrial applications. “This new opportunity to facilitate the expanded use of our national labs’ research reactor facilities will enable the USA to continue to be a world leader and global partner in the peaceful use of nuclear science and technology,” said Rick Perry, US Secretary of Energy.

The ICERR scheme was launched in 2014 to help member states, mainly without research reactors, gain timely access to research reactor infrastructure and carry out nuclear research and development as well as build capacity. Member States wishing to gain access to an ICERR have to become an Affiliate by signing a bilateral agreement with the centres designated as ICERRs.


Advanced reactors

Several side events that took place during the 61st General Conference considered the prospects for advanced reactors. At a side event on “Nuclear Energy Innovation and the Paris Agreement” on 19 September, IAEA director general Yukiya Amano said: “It is timely that we highlight the role of nuclear power in reducing environmental impacts, particularly CO2 emissions.” Participants at the meeting looked at the deployment of nuclear energy innovations that can support the reporting of countries’ five-year Nationally Determined Contributions under the Paris Agreement on Climate Change adopted in 2015, which set a target of limiting the increase in global temperature to below 2°C. “Innovations in nuclear technologies can significantly help global climate efforts. When countries update their NDCs, they should consider the evolving role of nuclear power in their low-carbon energy mix,” said Amano. 

Stefano Monti, head of the IAEA’s Nuclear Power Technology Development Section highlighted advanced technologies, such as accident tolerant fuels, high-temperature reactors, small modular reactors, non-electric nuclear applications and systems, which have potential to enhance competitiveness and sustainability. “Some are ready or almost available for deployment, while others are at very different stages of development, from pre-conceptual design to detailed design and demonstration,” he said. Once they are commercially available, these technologies can be incorporated into country updates of their NDCs.

Delegates emphasised the importance of investment in research and innovation as well as simplification of the regulatory framework, enhanced infrastructure, public perception and support. “These key factors are imperative to meet the increased levels of ambition needed to achieve the Paris Agreement goal,” said William Magwood, director general of the Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA). He presented NEA’s Nuclear Innovation 2050 (NI2050) initiative, which focuses on the potential of nuclear fission technology and defines priority areas and topics where the R&D is necessary to push for innovation.

The head of the IAEA’s Planning and Economic Studies Section, David Shropshire, explained that carbon reduction could be achieved by extending the operation of existing nuclear power plants, or meeting growing country energy demands by using increasingly efficient nuclear reactor designs. With this knowledge, member states may choose to include new nuclear technologies in the updates of their NDCs. The Paris Agreement stipulates that NDCs will be progressively revised every five years starting from 2020.

Another side event on “Nuclear High-Temperature Heat for Industrial Processes” looked at the potential of non-electric applications of nuclear energy. Mikhail Chudakov, IAEA deputy director general and head of the Department of Nuclear Energy said, “Many member states with an active programme on nuclear power believe that non-electric applications of nuclear energy are the path for nuclear energy to penetrate the transportation and heat markets.” He noted that the IAEA “has implemented and will continue to implement various activities and tools to enable member states to develop and deploy high-temperature reactors”.

Yulong Wu, general manager of Chinergy Co, gave details about the construction of the first advanced High-Temperature Gas- cooled Reactor, the HTR-PM in China, which uses nuclear fuel in the form of “pebbles”, spheres of uranium and plutonium. He said the reactor could drastically reduce air pollution and CO2 emissions by replacing a large number of China’s coal plants for industrial applications. It is scheduled for completion in late 2017.

Józef Sobolewski, director of Nuclear Energy at the Polish Ministry of Energy said the use of an HTGR could reduce CO2 emissions in Poland by 14-17m tonnes a year. Poland plans to use an HTGR to provide heat for large chemical plants, which currently require more than 5m tonnes of natural gas or oil each year. “There is huge potential for nuclear high-temperature heat for industrial applications in Poland as 100% of the heat market is dominated by fossil fuels,” he noted. 

IAEA Conference Advanced reactors, such as China’s planned HTR could drastically reduce air pollution
IAEA Conference Group photo of parties at the signing ceremony for the Strategic Master Plan for remediation of legacy uranium sites in central Asia
IAEA Conference Amano (middle) hands plaque to Willem van de Voorde (left) and Eric van Walle of SCK•CEN designating the Belgian Nuclear Research Centre as an IAEA International Centre based on Research Reactors. (Photo: IAEA)
IAEA Conference IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano delivers his opening remarks at the “Nuclear Energy Innovation and the Paris Agreement” side event (Credit: Dean Calma/IAEA)
IAEA Conference Participants at the 61st IAEA General Conference trying their skills in safe handling of disused sealed radioactive sources with mock objects. (Credit: A. Evrensel/IAEA)

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