Commissioning of Philippine research reactor under way

25 August 2022

The Philippine Nuclear Research Institute (PNRI) has begun commissioning the Philippine Research Reactor-1 Subcritical Assembly for Training, Education and Research (PRR-1 SATER), which will become the country's sole nuclear reactor training facility.

The new SATER facility is housed in the PRR-1 building (Image: PNRI)

The 1 MW open pool general-purpose PRR-1 research reactor in Quezon City reached criticality in August 1963. In 1984, PNRI decided to convert and upgrade the reactor into a 3 MW TRIGA Mark III reactor. It was shut down in 1988, leaving the country with no operating nuclear facility for the past 34 years.

In 2014, a proposal was accepted to utilise fuel rods from PRR-1 for training and education. The fuel is a uranium-zirconium hydride alloy manufactured by General Atomics of the USA, which built the PRR-1. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has been supporting the project through a series of technical cooperation projects.

In the first project, which launched in 2016, the IAEA assisted PNRI to build capacity in reactor design, neutron dosimetry and regulatory matters related to research reactors. A second cooperation project followed in 2020 and is ongoing to further build capacity, particularly in reactor engineering and operation, reactor utilisation and development of a reactor training programme to sustain local capacity-building activities.

The new SATER facility is housed in the PRR-1 building and will remain in a subcritical state, which means the nuclear fission chain reaction is dependent on neutrons from an external source. In a critical state, in which a nuclear power plant operates, the chain reaction is self-sustaining.

On 20 June, PNRI - part of the Department of Science and Technology - began loading 44 TRIGA nuclear fuel rods into the core of the PRR-1 SATER, signaling the start of the nuclear commissioning of the reactor.

Workers lower the fuel into the core of the PRR-1 SATER (Image: PNRI)

"The activation of PRR-1 SATER is a milestone for the Philippines, as the facility will provide significant support in re-establishing nuclear capabilities in the country," said Alvie Asuncion-Astronomo, associate scientist and former head of PNRI's Nuclear Reactor Operations Section.

"PRR-1 SATER is expected to be a training reactor for research reactor operators, regulators and users. It also aims to increase the research reactor stakeholder base in the country," she added. "The facility is projected to open the whole scientific field of reactor physics and engineering for Filipinos and to pave the way for the Philippines to strengthen its niche in the nuclear field."

It will support PNRI-initiated nuclear education programmes at the University of the Philippines Diliman and Mapua University. Nuclear-related courses that can be supported by the facility include nuclear reactor engineering, neutron physics, reactor physics, nuclear safety, and radiation dosimetry, among others.

Once commissioned, PNRI will apply for a full operating licence for the reactor. It is expected to be fully operational by 2023. In the meantime, the facility will be open for technical visits and awareness seminars on nuclear science and technology.

Nuclear power under consideration

In February, President Rodrigo Duterte signed an executive order outlining the government's position for the inclusion of nuclear energy in the Philippines' energy mix, taking into account economic, political, social and environmental objectives. The order says the government sees nuclear energy as "a viable component to bridge the gap between rising energy demand and supply," as well as a driver for economic growth. It also recognises nuclear's role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

"With nuclear power in consideration for the country's future energy mix and a demand for nuclear technology in different sectors, it is essential to build capacity and develop a new generation of scientists and workforce in this field," said Syahril Syahril, IAEA Programme Management Officer for the Philippines.

In response to the 1973 oil crisis, the Philippines decided to build the two-unit Bataan plant. Construction of Bataan 1 - a 621 MWe Westinghouse pressurised water reactor - began in 1976 and it was completed in 1984 at a cost of USD460 million. However, due to financial issues and safety concerns related to earthquakes, the plant was never loaded with fuel or operated. The plant has since been maintained.

Researched and written by World Nuclear News