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10th birthday of OPAL nuclear research reactor marks a decade of research

Ten years ago today, the Open Pool Australian Light-water (OPAL) nuclear research reactor went critical for the first time, and began producing neutrons through a self-sustaining fission reaction.

The OPAL reactor is a uniquely Australian design which is currently the best of its kind in the world and is the world’s first research reactor to use only low enriched uranium fuel and target plates.

“On a daily basis, OPAL feeds millions of neutrons through to a suite of neutron scattering instruments that can help deepen our understanding of the world around us,” said CEO Dr Adi Paterson.

“From how we digest rice, to the possibilities for new stronger forms of antibiotics, understanding how batteries obtain and lose their charge and even how welding joins hold up under extreme environments.

“Through irradiating samples, OPAL also helps us understand the elemental composition of materials, and is one of the world’s major producers of irradiated silicon, an essential part of major green energy sources.

“The most immediate benefit to the average Australian has been through OPAL’s role in delivering the base material for over 10,000 patient doses of nuclear medicine that are sent across Australia each week.

“Since OPAL achieved its first sustained nuclear chain reaction, it has produced millions of doses of nuclear medicine used in the diagnosis and treatment of various cancers, and heart, lung and skeletal conditions.

“On average one in two Australians will need a nuclear medicine dose at some point in their lifetime, and reactors including OPAL are the only reliable way of producing quantities at the scale and quality needed.”

Dr Paterson said that while the milestone is an important one, ANSTO is very much a future-focussed organisation which is looking to further contribute to science, industry and human health.

“ANSTO has 60 years of expertise in manufacturing and exporting nuclear medicine, 10 with OPAL, and from next year these capabilities will be dramatically enhanced with the ANSTO Nuclear Medicine plant,” he said.

“Global demand for potentially lifesaving molybdenum 99 (Mo-99) is increasing, while the reactors capable of supplying it are shutting down, and from next year ANSTO will step up to help fill that gap.

“The $168.8 million project is in the final phases of construction, and will ramp up to a full scale production of 10 million doses a year – 25 per cent of world supply – by the end of 2017.”

OPAL’s state-of-the-art use of LEU technology will be applied on a global scale with ANM, driving down world demand for highly enriched uranium, and contributing to Australia’s non-proliferation goals.

“OPAL represents a significant investment in Australia’s nuclear research infrastructure, and since it was turned on 12 August 2006 Australia’s research capabilities have gone from strength to strength,” he said.

“The nuclear industry in Australia is niche, important and significant, with more than 1000 scientists and researchers at ANSTO alone answering some of the biggest questions in the world around us.

“ANSTO is a partner to industry, government, universities and the private sector, and OPAL is key to a large proportion of the research we and our partners carry out.

“The nuclear science expertise that has developed in Australia over the last decade can be attributed to the international attraction and world class research that is possible because of OPAL.

“So today we wish OPAL a very happy tenth birthday and look forward to it delivering many more years of benefits ahead.”

Media contact: Phil McCall on 0438 619 987