A team of experts of International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has praised the operator of a research reactor in Jamaica as showing continuous commitment to safety following its conversion to using low-enriched uranium (LEU) instead of high-enriched uranium (HEU) as fuel. 

The team also recommended for additional improvements with regard to safety at the reactor, which is the only such facility in the Caribbean region.

The Integrated Safety Assessment for Research Reactors (INSARR) team completed a five-day mission on 23 June to review assess the safety of the JM-1 (SLOWPOKE II type) reactor.

Originally commissioned in 1984, this 20kW reactor is operated by the International Centre for Environment and Nuclear Sciences (ICENS) at the Mona campus, University of West Indies, in the capital Kingston.

It is used primarily for neutron activation analysis, education, and training.

In 2015, the reactor’s core was converted from HEU to LEU fuel as part of a joint effort by the governments of Jamaica, the US and Canada, with help from the IAEA.

Core conversion was undertaken to remove the proliferation risks linked with HEU, while maintaining important scientific research. 

The reactor began operating again in 2015. Presently, its instrumentation and control system is being upgraded with support from the IAEA’s Technical Cooperation Programme to boost operational safety.

IAEA nuclear safety officer Deshraju Venkat H Rao said: “The research reactor’s operator is showing high-commitment to safety and has made good progress in implementing the IAEA recommendations on the safety of the reactor core conversion.

“There is a need for further improvements, however, particularly in areas related to organisational factors, safety documentation, and operational safety, including the maintenance programme, and operating instructions.”

The five-member team had experts from Canada, Italy, Romania and the US, as well as an IAEA official.

"The reactor’s continued safe operation will enhance its utilisation and support research not only in Jamaica, but in the entire Caribbean region."

The mission looked into organisational and management issues besides technical areas, including core conversion, safety assessment, operation and maintenance programmes, radiation protection, and emergency preparedness.

ICENS director general Charles Grant said: "We appreciate the continued support of the IAEA, which was central to the safe core conversion activities. The INSARR mission has recommended organisational and technical measures to further strengthen safety of the JM-1 research reactor.

"We are committed to implementing the recommendations. The reactor’s continued safe operation will enhance its utilisation and support research not only in Jamaica, but in the entire Caribbean region." 

The team recommended improvements, including the establishment of a safety panel to independently advise senior ICENS management on reactor operational safety, and finalising an integrated management system that continuously develops and maintains a strong safety culture. In addition, further recommedations included implementation of the safety upgrade of the instrumentation and control system, development of a preliminary decommissioning plan for the reactor.

Image: IAEA’s INSARR mission team at the JM-1 Research Reactor in Kingston, Jamaica. Photo: courtesy of IAEA.