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An International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Integrated Safety Assessment for Research Reactors (INSARR) team of experts said the Philippines is committed to the safe operation of the Philippine Research Reactor-1 (PRR-1) Subcritical Assembly for Training, Education & Research (SATER) facility. This followed completion of recent commissioning tests and the start of its utilisation for training and education. The team also found the need for further improvement in the reactor’s operational organisation structure, its maintenance and operating procedures.

The five-day mission was conducted at the request of the Philippine Nuclear Research Institute (PNRI), part of the Department of Science & Technology. The team comprised three experts from China, the Netherlands and the USA, and one IAEA staff member. The mission reviewed regulatory supervision, the management system, and training and qualification. It also covered technical aspects, such as the commissioning results, maintenance, operating procedures, utilization and experiments, radiation protection, and emergency planning.

PRR-1 SATER is operated by the PNRI and housed in the building of the original PRR-1. It is located at the University of the Philippines in Quezon City, northeast of Manila, which was shut down in 1988. Construction work on PRR-1 SATER began in 2017 and concluded in 2021. Commissioning began in June 2022, when PNRI started to load TRIGA (Training, Research, Isotopes General Atomics) fuel elements into the subcritical assembly. Following PNRI’s review of the commissioning tests, PRR-1 SATER was granted authorisation for operation and was restarted in March.

The facility is subcritical, meaning that the chain nuclear fission reaction is initiated and maintained through an external neutron source, as opposed to a critical facility where the nuclear chain reaction is self-sustaining. The facility is used for training and education programmes initiated by PNRI at universities in the Philippines and permits researchers to conduct experiments and demonstrate neutron activation analysis and operation of a nuclear installation.

The INSARR team observed that the established practices in the use of the facility and experiments, as well as in radiation protection and waste management, are in line with the IAEA safety standards. It also noted improvement in safety documents following the commissioning tests. “PNRI has shown a commitment to safety by requesting an IAEA INSARR mission,” said Kaichao Sun, team leader and Nuclear Safety Officer at the IAEA. “Transition from commissioning to routine operation of a nuclear installation could be challenging. Continued implementation of measures of effective leadership and management for safety, in accordance with the IAEA safety standards, ensures this challenge is addressed.”

The team also made recommendations and suggestions for further improvements, including the need for:

Enhancing the effectiveness of the safety committee of the facility by including in its scope the review of proposed changes in operational procedures, new experiments and modifications projects.Establishing procedures for qualification of the operating personnel with an assessment of the capabilities of the personnel to be authorized, including a comprehensive examination based on the training programme.Establishing a maintenance programme for safety-related systems and components, based on the design and surveillance requirements and manufacturers' instructions.Including requirements on periodic testing of safety-related systems and components in the operational rules.

“The PNRI requested the INSARR mission under the support of the IAEA Technical Cooperation Programme. With the recent start of operation of PRR-1 SATER, the facility operator welcomed the significant inputs from the INSARR team to improve the safety of the facility and to ensure its efficient and safe operation and utilization,” said Ryan Olivares, the reactor manager of PRR-1 SATER. “Operating this newly repurposed training facility is a significant milestone for the Philippines after almost four decades of extended reactor shutdown. Notwithstanding the significant steps undertaken and efforts invested for continuous advancement, the INSARR mission still provided the operator with valuable inputs, and the team remains committed to implement safety improvements.” PNRI plans to request a follow-up INSARR mission in 2025.

Image: The Philippine Research Reactor-1 building at the University of the Philippines (courtesy of PNRI)

Date: Wednesday, 29 November 2023
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