The Nuclear Reactors That Power Knowledge Not Light Bulbs

A research and test reactor

In addition to regulating commercial nuclear power reactors that generate 20 percent of the nation’s electricity, the NRC also regulates much smaller reactors used for research, training and development.

These “research and test reactors,” often called RTRs or non-power reactors, contribute to almost every field of science including physics, chemistry, biology, medicine, geology, archeology, and environmental sciences. Most are located at universities or colleges. (The NRC does not regulate research reactors run by the Department of Energy.)

The most common use for these small reactors is for experiments. One widely used type of experiment is neutron scattering. Radiation from the reactor is directed at the material to be studied. The manner in which the radiation interacts and bounces off, or scatters, from the material provides information on structure and properties. Neutron scattering is an important tool in experiments dealing with superconductors, polymers, metals, and proteins.

Neutron radiography is another experimental technique. It is similar to medical or dental X-rays. These experiments are used to determine structural integrity and provide quality control for aerospace, automotive and medical components.

NRC experts inspect each RTR periodically to ensure they are being operated according to the agency’s safety and security requirements, and the facility’s own license conditions. The NRC uses a graded approach in its inspection program so there are less frequent and detailed inspections at facilities that pose a lower risk.

There are two types of inspection programs for operating research and test reactors:

• For reactors licensed to operate at power levels of 2 megawatts or greater, the inspection program is completed annually.

• For reactors licensed to operate at power levels below 2 megawatts, the inspection program is completed every two years.

Those reactors which are shut down but not actively decommissioning have an abbreviated inspection program every three years.

To be licensed, research and test reactor operators must have the required knowledge, skills and abilities to control the reactor during both routine operations and emergencies. As part of the initial operator licensing process, NRC prepares and administers a comprehensive written examination and a hands-on operating test. Operators who successfully complete the exams are licensed for six years at that specific location only. Operators must also pass a comprehensive written test every two years and an annual operating test.

All research and test reactors are designed to use only a limited amount of radioactive material on site, which makes them very low risk for radiological contamination or theft of nuclear material. Security requirements for these facilities vary depending on how much material they have.

For more information on research and test reactors and how they are regulated, go to:

Cindy Montgomery
Office of Nuclear Reactor Regulation

Author: Moderator

Public Affairs Officer for the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission

2 thoughts on “The Nuclear Reactors That Power Knowledge Not Light Bulbs”

  1. This was a very interesting read. I did not know about these test reactors, and I can see why they might be very useful if not vital for future use. Scattering Neutrons, I did not know that this could be done. Thank you for informing us.

  2. I never knew that there were test nuclear reactors. Neutron scattering must have a wide application w/ many different types of materials.

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