Kindai University’s research reactor will resume operating in April. It is hugely significant that a research reactor has finally managed to restart for the first time under new regulatory standards introduced after the March 2011 accident at Tokyo Electric Power Co. Holdings Inc.’s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.
The research reactor halted operations for a regular inspection in February 2014. Though the university applied in October that year for the reactor to be checked under the new standards, the inspection by the Nuclear Regulation Authority took a long time to complete.
This was because the NRA required the research reactor to undergo the same safety checks as a nuclear power reactor. In May the reactor passed the NRA’s screening, on the condition that steps to reinforce the facility be taken.
After this, Kindai University spent about $900,000 on major improvements to the facility, including replacing the fire doors and installing a multiplex system for the control rods that can halt the reactor. This month, at long last, the reactor passed the NRA’s pre-operation test, the final step on the path to resuming operations.
The experience of actually operating a nuclear reactor is important for nurturing the human resources who will be involved in nuclear power generation. The heat output of Kindai’s reactor is 1 watt — about the same as a small light bulb. Unlike a commercial nuclear reactor with a heat output 1 billion times higher or more, the research reactor has a simple structure and is very safe. It is ideal for educational purposes.
Before its long-term shutdown, 100 students or more from Kindai and other universities used the research reactor each year for practical training. While operation of the reactor was suspended, the university got around its unavailability by sending students to use a research reactor at a university in South Korea. Stable operation of Kindai’s reactor will be needed in the years ahead.
Skilled people needed
The need for talented human resources is growing in the nuclear energy field.
First and foremost, they are needed for decommissioning work at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant. The initial stage of dealing with this matter has mostly been completed. Now the decommissioning work is gearing up for the most difficult stage: the removal of the melted nuclear fuel and the dismantling of the nuclear reactors.
This will be a long-term job that takes 30 to 40 years. The nation needs to continually develop human resources possessing specialist knowledge and the will to work in this field. These people also could become actively involved in decommissioning other reactors and the cleanup and disposal of radioactive waste.
The engineers and technicians who will handle the construction of new reactors in the future also should be secured.
The problem is that resumption of operations at other research reactors remains a murky prospect. Kyoto University has a bigger research reactor, but it requires major reinforcement work. NRA screening of four other reactor units also is dragging on.
Improving the NRA’s screening capabilities is an urgent task.
The inspection of a research reactor that employs different systems from conventional nuclear power reactors is also expected. That is the Joyo experimental fast reactor operated by the Japan Atomic Energy Agency. There is hope this could be used in light of the decommissioning of the Monju fast-breeder reactor.
The government as a whole, including the NRA, should rebuild its strategy for nurturing human resources.