FUTURE MISSIONS FOR RESEARCH REACTORS
Research reactors in the United States and Russia serve a variety of industrial and biomedical missions and enable research in fields such as physics and nuclear engineering. Missions mentioned during the course of the symposium that seem likely to continue include silicon doping, radioisotope production, notably including molybdenum-99, and neutron therapy. It is essential to maintain the capability to meet these research and industrial needs. Other means (e.g., particle accelerators) may be developed in the future for generating some radioisotopes and producing neutron beams, but research reactors will be far more difficult to replace for some other applications. In particular, future research related to nuclear energy and the nuclear fuel cycle will necessitate maintaining and improving current research reactor capabilities in the United States and Russia as well as in other countries. Research reactors are especially needed to conduct basic research for nuclear power development.
Nuclear power generation faces major challenges in the coming decades. Increasing quantities of commercial spent nuclear fuel are being accumulated around the world, and in the long-term, supplies of uranium-235 will begin to decrease. Fast neutron reactors (“fast reactors”) are being studied in the United States and in Russia for their potential to help meet these challenges. Such reactors have the potential to “burn” long-lived actinides in spent fuel and also to produce and operate using plutonium, thereby extending current fuel supplies. However, more research remains to be done on these topics to effectively design the needed facilities and processes.
Beyond the design and testing of future fast reactors, further research could also help to extend the capability of nuclear power plants to meet new tasks. For example, research on heat- and radiation-resistant materials could lead to the deployment of high-temperature nuclear plants to meet the needs of heat-intensive industrial processes, including water desalination, production of synthetic fuels, and hydrogen production. If fossil resources that currently fuel these processes are exhausted, nuclear power will be needed to fill the gap.
Several research problems related to these topics will need to be investigated in the coming decades, including improving the scientific understanding of:
1. Nuclear physics of the interaction of radiation with matter.
2. Radiation damage of metallic and nonmetallic reactor materials.