A new reactor for ‘world class’ scientific research?

Jim Green


For a more detailed version of this paper, see this webpage:



There are four main reasons put forward for the operation of a research reactor in Australia:

– so called national interest/security issues, which revolve around the maintenance of a pool of nuclear expertise for various purposes and contingencies;

– scientific research;

– the production of radioisotopes, mostly for nuclear medicine; and

– commercial applications and spin-offs, such as mineral radioassays, and silicon doping for the electronics industry.

The national interest/security issues are the most important concerns of the federal government and government departments such as the Department of Foreign Affairs. Scientific research (a.k.a. neutron science) may be a significant, if secondary, concern. According to ANSTO, approximately 90% of HIFAR’s neutrons are used for scientific research.

However the importance of neutron science in the government’s deliberations should not be overstated. In fact the government did not even consult the Chief Scientist, or the Australian Science, Technology and Engineering Council (ASTEC) before the September 1997 decision to replace HIFAR. Nor was CSIRO consulted, perhaps because CSIRO concluded in 1993 that “more productive research could be funded for the cost of a reactor.” The government claims that there was no need for any systematic study of the cases for and against the planned new reactor before the 1997 decision because the issues were exhaustively examined by the 1993 Research Reactor Review. So what did the Research Reactor Review say? It said “the case for a reactor on science grounds cannot be sustained”!

There are two crucial questions with respect to science:

First, is a new reactor a good investment in the context of scarce funding for scientific R&D programs in Australia? This question is open for endless debate. Certainly it has not been established that a reactor is a good investment in the overall context of Australia’s science and technology (S&T) sector.

Second, to what extent could alternatives such as spallation sources, particle accelerators, synchrotron radiation sources and “suitcase science” (accessing overseas facilities) obviate the need for a reactor? Which research areas would be given a boost if alternatives were pursued instead of a reactor, and which research areas would be curtailed? How do the alternatives compare with a reactor in relation to financial costs, radioactive waste, safety, and other parameters?

1993 Research Reactor Review (RRR)

Supporters of a new reactor – such as ANSTO and Hughes MP Danna Vale – have been misrepresenting the findings of the RRR. In relation to the “crucial” question posed by the Terms of Reference, whether the science at ANSTO is of sufficient distinction and importance to Australia to warrant a new reactor, the RRR (pp.65-66) said:

“The Review is not convinced that that is the case – at least not yet. ANSTO scientists are held in esteem by other scientists here and overseas. Peer reviews of recent scientific output were more mixed. Nobody advanced the view that Australian scientists working at HIFAR are at the cutting edge of science. The Australian Research Council Review pointed to a facility not fully exploited. The evaluations of publications were also mixed. A picture of a vibrant field of science, energised by young people excited by the challenges and opportunities, did not emerge. HIFAR is not at present and has not for many years been the focus of scientific effort equivalent to that evident in several other scientific fields.”

“The Review was not even convinced that (reactor-based) science has been a major focus of ANSTO activity. The full flowering of recent vigour might not be evident yet in publications, but at present the case for a new reactor on science grounds cannot be sustained, however compelling the need for such science.”

How much of ANSTO’s research is reactor-dependent?

– Prof. Geoffrey Wilson (RRR, 1993, Appendix 1, pp.31-32, 41-43) analysed ANSTO’s program expenditure. His findings were that in 1991-92, reactor-dependent research cost $8.35 million (31%), reactor-independent research cost $18.45 million (69%). The figure of 31% reactor-independent research would fall still further if the CSIRO facilities at Lucas Heights are included.

– drawing on ANSTO’s 1992-93 Program of Research, former AAEC/ANSTO/CSIRO employee Murray Scott (RRR Submission) concluded that HIFAR and MOATA were used in 8 of 17 projects. In person-years this amounted to 45/215 or 21%. The figure fell to 14% when the adjacent CSIRO facilities were included.

Thus, only a minority of ANSTO’s programs and staff would be affected by the closure and non-replacement of HIFAR. A good case could be made for further investment in non-reactor technologies if HIFAR is closed without replacement. These alternatives include spallation sources and particle accelerators (linear accelerators and cyclotrons). This offers a win-win situation:

– a large reduction in radioactive waste generation

– few if any staff redundancies (and perhaps additional staff)

– increased occupational and public health and safety

– far less community opposition.

Industrial applications & spin-offs.

It is highly unlikely that revenue from a new reactor would off-set the costs of construction, operation, decommissioning, waste management etc. The RRR said that a new reactor is certain to be a substantial economic burden, even allowing for off-setting revenue, and that there did not appear to be any prospect of commercial or industrial equity capital for a new reactor.

Environmental research / applications.

A very large majority of ANSTO’s so-called environmental projects do not use HIFAR. It is inconceivable that the environmental benefits of a new reactor would outweigh the environmental costs (emissions, waste, etc.).

The broader science & technology context.

No effort has been made to justify the reactor in the broader S&T context. The RRR said that “The Review considers that funding a new research reactor or a major upgrade of HIFAR should not be at the expense of existing science expenditure.” Yet it appears that science, medicine and education are taking cuts to fund the new reactor. Cuts to scientific R&D over the Coalition’s first two years of government totalled 10.9%.

The proposal to build a new reactor has attracted very little support in the S&T sector outside of those groups with a direct interest in the construction of a new reactor.

Barry Allen, Professor of Pharmacy at Sydney University and former Chief Research Scientist at ANSTO, argues that: “The reactor will be a step into the past …… (it) will comprise mostly imported technology and it may well be the last of its kind ever built. In fact, the cost of replacing the reactor is comparable to the whole wish list that arguably could be written for research facilities by the Australian Science, Technology and Engineering Council. … Apart from the neutron-scattering element of the reactor, there will be little research and development yet it will make a large dent in the budget for Australian research, which at this point is so badly needed in order to take us into the next century. … The decision to proceed with a new reactor is not wrong, but it is a far cry from the optimal expenditure of funds that Australia badly needs in science and technology.”

There is also the view that too much of the research at ANSTO merely duplicates overseas research. Former AAEC/ANSTO/CSIRO employee Murray Scott made the following comments in his submission to the RRR:

– ANSTO’s research is facility-driven, i.e. it is driven by a perceived need to make use of ANSTO’s facilities, in particular expensive instruments such as HIFAR, rather than being driven by practical problems. This results in expensive facilities such as HIFAR functioning as “technologies in search of a mission”. A better model would be “small science”, more flexible, problem-based rather than facility-based.

– much of ANSTO’s research is redundant, adding little if anything to overseas knowledge – dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s. “This tunnel vision tends to be perpetuated as the students in turn become supervisors and promote their own little corner of whatever field they were herded into.”

– Scott says: “Though HIFAR has become indispensable to the people involved, e.g. in neutron diffraction and activation analysis, it has commanded resources which would have supported considerably more effort in closely related fields such as X-ray diffraction and mass spectrometer or atomic absorption analysis. …. (The proposed new reactor) would continue to drain students, research effort and money away from more productive fields for many decades.”

– generally the uptake by industry of ANSTO’s research has not been good, with industry preferring cheaper, more accessible alternatives.

If the response to the lack of industrial uptake is to beat the drum for “basic” research, then that is a fine argument in general terms, but according to Murray Scott the basic research at ANSTO adds little or nothing to overseas research.

Professor Ian Lowe, from Griffith University, analysed the reactor/science debates during the RRR and concluded thus: “In summary, science policy considerations suggest strongly that a new research reactor should not be a high priority for Australia’s small public sector research budget. Although the construction of HIFAR and other facilities at Lucas Heights have resulted in about 3% of Australia’s public science expenditure going into the ANSTO operation, the returns have been comparatively modest. The output of scientific papers is modest, whether measured per researcher or per unit of expenditure, and it is not possible to show the impact of this work as being unusual. The rate of invention and patenting makes little contribution to the nation as a whole.”

Alternatives to a new reactor for scientific research.

There are several alternatives to a new reactor, including particle accelerators, spallation sources, and synchrotron radiation sources. In all cases, the alternatives are preferable to a reactor in relation to radioactive waste and safety. At present there is insufficient information on which to base cost comparisons. Inevitably there is a degree of divergence (and thus complementarity) between reactors (neutrons), spallation sources (usually pulsed neutrons), particle accelerators (charged particles) and synchrotron sources (mostly X-rays, also other forms of radiation). Nevertheless, claims that synchrotron, accelerator and spallation facilities complement (but cannot replace) reactors tend to understate the extent to which different facilities can be used for identical or similar applications. In some cases non-reactor alternatives can replace reactors for precisely the same purpose: for example the use of accelerators or spallation sources to produce molybdenum-99 (which decays to form the most important medical isotope, technetium-99m). In other cases there is a more general overlap: for example spallation sources, particle accelerators, synchrotron sources and reactors all have uses in materials research, even if each instrument has strengths and weaknesses in particular areas of materials research.

There have been major advances in spallation, accelerator and synchrotron technology in the past 10-20 years and further improvements can be expected. By contrast, advances in reactor technology appear to be more modest. Moreover, about 600 research reactors have been built around the world since WWII, but only about 270 are now in operation and many more closures can be expected in the next 10-20 years.

Alternatives to a new reactor were not properly evaluated prior to the September 1997 decision to fund a new reactor.

A package of alternative technologies and strategies should replace the existing reactor – particle accelerator/s, suitcase science, imported radioisotopes, alternative medical technologies, etc. That point ought to be obvious but it needs to be stressed because of the habit of pro-reactor propagandists to jump from the premise that any particular alternative (e.g. cyclotrons) cannot fully replace a reactor to the false conclusion that a reactor is therefore necessary.

Spallation sources

Spallation sources generate a neutron beam – not dissimilar to the neutron beam of a reactor – but without the need for a self-sustained uranium fission reaction. The applications of spallation sources are expanding to encompass broader areas of scientific research as well as medical and industrial applications. Cost comparisons may be favourable, or at least roughly equivalent, when compared with a new research reactor. Spallation sources are certainly preferable to reactors in relation to radioactive waste. It is argued that spallation sources complement – but cannot replace – reactors. However, in Belgium, the intention is to replace the BR-2 research reactor with a spallation source – this is the Myrrha-Adonis project. In the USA, plans for a $3 billion reactor were scrapped, and instead a $1.8 billion spallation source is being built.

Suitcase science (i.e. funding for scientists to access overseas research facilities).

Greater funding for suitcase science could partially compensate for the lack of a domestic reactor, although the extent of future access to overseas facilities is an open question. It is argued that a basic level of reactor competence is usually necessary before access to overseas facilities is granted, and that a domestic reactor is also necessary as a bargaining chip (to be made available to overseas scientists). Such claims sit uncomfortably with the fact that Australian scientists have access to overseas spallation sources and synchrotron radiation facilities although Australia does not have either of these instruments. If non-reactor facilities are further developed in Australia as an alternative to a reactor, these facilities could serve as bargaining chips. Already this occurs to some extent; for example overseas scientists use the tandem accelerator at Lucas Heights. For the cost of a new reactor, any number of scientists could be sent to the best overseas facilities for many decades to come.

Particle accelerators.

Particle accelerators (cyclotrons and linear accelerators) have many applications in radioisotope production, medical research, scientific research, environmental research, etc. Several accelerators are already in operation in Australia and a good case can be made for further investment in accelerator technology. This investment would partially compensate for the lack of a reactor in Australia.

Synchrotron radiation sources.

These instruments are used for a growing range of research projects in areas such as chemistry, materials research (ceramics, polymers, minerals) and biological research. Australian scientists have access to synchrotron facilities in the USA and Japan.