The primary purpose of research reactors is to provide a source of neutrons - subatomic particles produced when uranium atoms split - for a wide range of applications.
Nuclear research reactors do not generate electricity, are a fraction of the size of power reactors and are often used for commercial and industrial purposes as well as research. They are highly versatile, multi-use neutron producers.
What are research reactors used for?
Research reactors can be used to:
- Investigate properties of a wide range of materials
- Irradiate silicon ingots for use in very high quality semi-conductors
- Make industrial radioisotopes and many of the radiopharmaceuticals used in nuclear medicine.
For more information, see the IAEA's website: Nuclear Research Reactors in the World.
ANSTO and research reactors - an overview
Three research reactors have operated in Australia, all at the ANSTO site.
The first research reactor at ANSTO was the High Flux Australian Reactor (HIFAR), officially opened on Australia Day, 26 January 1958. Built at an initial cost of $2.9 million, it provided the greater part of Australia's nuclear-based needs for just short of 50 years. It was shut down permanently on 30 January 2007.
For most of its operating life, HIFAR used uranium-235 enriched to 60 per cent. This was eventually cut to less than 20 per cent, an amount regarded as having no value for illegal uses.
The very small Moata reactor cost $150,000 and operated for just over 37 years, mainly for materials research. It went critical (achieved its first controlled nuclear chain reaction) for the first time on 1 April 1961 and was shut down permanently in 1995.
ANSTO's current research reactor (OPAL), first went critical on 12 August 2006, becoming the third research reactor to operate at ANSTO. It cost $400 million to build and has a range of capabilities including neutron beam research and irradiation facilities. OPAL has an expected lifespan of at least 40 years.