Nuclear reactors are safely maintained by current standards and regulations. Through these guidelines and requirements, the world’s 445 nuclear reactors generate about 10 percent of the electricity used on the planet. Furthermore, nuclear reactors serve other practical purposes that benefit society, such as research.
What Are Research Reactors?
Research reactors make use of technology similar to electricity-generating nuclear reactors, but exist for research and training, materials testing, and even the production of radioisotopes for use in medicine and other industries. These “neutron factories” are much smaller than common power reactors or those used to propel ships, and they are located primarily on university campuses. There are about 220 research reactors operating worldwide.
Even though they are much smaller than power nuclear reactors, research reactors still make use of the nuclear fission of uranium and other enriched fuels, and thus need to be managed by similar regulatory and standardized measures. With nuclear energy, some past mistakes have resulted from inadequate preparedness of the workers in contact with the nuclear reactors. To prevent anything like this from occurring with research reactors, ANSI/ANS-15.4-2016 (R2021) – Selection and Training of Personnel for Research Reactors standardizes the criteria for the selection and training of their personnel.
ANSI/ANS-15.4 Research Reactor Training by Level
According to ANSI/ANS-15.4-2016 (R2021):
“Research reactor personnel shall have that combination of academic training, job-related experience, health, and skills commensurate with their level of responsibility that provides reasonable assurance that decisions and actions during all normal and abnormal conditions will be such that the reactor is operated in a safe manner.”
This training should differ between the functional levels of the personnel and their responsibilities. ANSI/ANS-15.4-2016 (R2021) establishes the general functional levels of an organization. as represented in the following figure (this information was pulled from Section 3, “Functional levels and assignments of responsibility”):
The prerequisite education and experience for workers interacting with the research reactors varies among these levels, and it is the highest among Level 2 (6 years of nuclear experience) and Level 3 (3 years of experience). Please note that academic experience can count toward nuclear experience in some of the levels. For example, an undergraduate degree in an appropriate field can be substituted for 4 of the 6 years of experience in Level 2, and 2 academic years can count for the 3 years needed for Level 3.
About ANSI/ANS-15.4-2016 (R2021)
Even with this experience, ANSI/ANS-15.4-2016 (R2021) still calls for worker training procedures, with the appropriate course material based off the trainees’ current knowledge. The document details procedures for this, the assessments for disqualifying conditions, and guidelines for refresher training when it is needed.
In addition, the American National Standard places a strong focus on the the necessary frequency of medical examinations for the operators to further assure their safety. Managing this is the responsibility of Level 2 personnel.
If research reactors are operated by workers that do not hold these competencies, then they can put themselves, the other operators, and even people in the communities surrounding the reactor, at risk from uranium exposure and other threats of decaying nuclear fuel. However, through adherence to ANSI/ANS-15.4-2016 (R2021), these threats are reduced drastically, and the operators can assure safety and reliability as they educate, experiment, and extract isotopes to treat illness and disease, with some research reactors even working to provide a viable treatment for cancer.
The standard for the selection and training of personnel for research reactors was last revised in 2016 and reaffirmed in 2021, hence the current designation.
ANSI/ANS-15.4-2016 (R2021): Selection and Training of Personnel for Research Reactors is available on the ANSI Webstore.
Other American National Standards for Research Reactors
Several other American National Standards published by the American Nuclear Society in the ANSI/ANS-15 series address provisions for research reactors. These include:
ANSI/ANS-15.15-1978 (R1986): Criteria For The Reactor Safety Systems Of Research Reactors (please note that this standard has been withdrawn)