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Fukushima fallout hits neutron sources

Laboratory officials fear for future of national reactors

Safety upgrades and rising fuel costs in the wake of the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster are putting neutron research facilities under pressure to reduce their operations or close down, laboratory officials say.

Since Fukushima, the safety of industrial and research nuclear reactors has been called into question by regulators. An amendment to the European Nuclear Safety Directive in July 2014, for example, required member states to create rules for the implementation of multiple levels of independent security controls at all nuclear facilities—a concept known as defence in depth.

At the Institut Laue-Langevin, an international neutron source in Grenoble, changes implemented by the French Nuclear Safety Authority (ASN) have cost more than €20 million. The ILL is used by researchers from biology, physics and materials sciences to probe molecular and crystalline structures, the properties of which can be revealed by how they scatter neutrons.

“The requests of the ASN were very demanding,” says Bill Stirling, the ILL’s director. “We have had to do a rather remarkable programme of engineering to stabilise and strengthen our facilities so that they can withstand a series of unlikely events such as severe earthquakes, breaking dams and the destruction of local chemical works.”

Stirling says that although the ILL had financial difficulties, it was able to reconstruct its budget to account for the extra costs. But the institute is now being hit by what he calls “Fukushima II”, whereby the factory that makes its fuel elements is also being re-engineered by the ASN, sending fuel costs soaring.

That facility, run by a company called Cerca and located in Romans, France, is a subsidiary of the troubled French nuclear group Areva. It is the top global supplier of fuel for research reactors, and provides fuel for all of Europe’s neutron facilities. In January, Areva told the ILL that prices would be increasing significantly to cover the cost of its improvement works. Stirling is unwilling to disclose the increase as it is still under negotiation, but Research Europe understands that the price will more than double.

“The requested cost increase was much, much bigger than we anticipated,” says Stirling. “We are now in a very difficult position because our finances are limited.” The ILL budget is under review, with the likely result that operating hours will be cut, he says.

Smaller, national facilities are also struggling to absorb the rising costs. On 29 April, for example, a note from the directorate of the Laboratoire Léon Brillouin in Saclay, France, informed users that the laboratory’s reactor and associated equipment would be closed down by 2020. 

Alain Menelle, the operations director at the LLB, says that its closure will reduce access to neutron scattering for French scientists by 60 per cent. He explains that because French investment in the ILL and the European Spallation Source is tied by international agreements, “the French ministry can only decrease spending on neutron scattering by closing our reactor”.

With the ESS under construction in Sweden and not due to open to researchers until 2023, and the ILL itself under financial strain, Menelle says the decision to cut the LLB reactor’s funding is “short-sighted”. 

The ESS will provide access to some of the estimated 6,000 researchers in Europe who make use of neutron scattering, but it lacks the capacity to make up for the closure of national facilities, says Colin Carlile, the editor of the Journal of Neutron Research and former director of the ESS. There are 10 national neutron scattering facilities in Europe, of which at least three are under threat because of the cost increases, Carlile says: the LLB, the BER II reactor in Berlin, which is due to close in 2019, and the Budapest Research Reactor.

Neutron users in all disciplines need to unite to try to influence national funding decisions, says Carlile: “One by one, all these facilities can be closed down quite easily. And once they close, they will never be started up again.”

This article also appeared in Research Europe