Nowadays, such centres are built in many countries. In total, there are about 220 reactors designed for research purposes throughout the world. Latin America has 16 complexes located in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Jamaica, Mexico and Peru.
The Russian technologies in this area have been recognised among the best. In total, over the past 70 years, the Rosatom implemented 22 research reactors in Europe, Asia and Africa. At the same time, the state corporation operates about a quarter of all the research centres in the world.
The record height
In July 2021, the Rosatom began construction of the first research centre with a pressurised water reactor in Bolivia. The President of Bolivia, Luis Alberto Arce Katakora attended the ceremony of pouring the first concrete.
Emphasising the social, economic and educational significance of the centre, the Head of the State said the following during the construction commencement ceremony: “Thanks to the infrastructure of the Centre, Bolivian and foreign scientists will be able to conduct unprecedented nuclear research, the one that will help Bolivia develop various industries, such as the mining sector and agriculture, and explore water resources.”
Being located in the city of El Alto, at the altitude of 4 thousand metres above the sea level, the project is really unique for the global nuclear industry as it is the world record among the nuclear facilities ever built at such a height in history.
The straight line distance from Moscow to the site is 12.5 thousand kilometres, which makes the Centre for Nuclear Research the most remote Rosatom project in the world. Moreover, this is its first project in Latin America.
High-altitude location makes its own impact on the design and construction of the reactor. When working at such a height, the process of cavitation begins in liquids, i.e. formation of air bubbles posing serious risks for the pumping equipment. The use of modern computer codes and programs made possible application of the most optimal design solutions ensuring reliable and safe operation of the equipment.
Despite the technological difficulties, the research reactor is being built in strict accordance with the standards of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the Bolivian nuclear regulator.
Complex science for simple tasks
The centre consists of a research reactor, a preclinical cyclotron-radiopharmacological complex, a multi-purpose irradiation centre and the laboratory of radiobiology and radioecology. All this will solve several important problems at a time: boosting of the national industry and agriculture, improvement of Bolivia’s health care and the regional investment climate, as well as creation of jobs for Bolivian citizens.
As says Hortensia Jiménez Rivera, Director General of Bolivian Agency for Nuclear Energy (ABEN), in her interview with the Global Energy Association: “We are far behind our neighbouring countries, so the construction of this centre will help us overcome this gap. Nuclear technologies are the key thing to our development. They also play a highly significant role for healthcare and agriculture. We are inherently an agricultural country exporting products over long distances, such research is important for us,”.
The research reactor is a source of the neutrons required for production of radioisotopes, irradiation of materials, study of the structures of various materials, substances and products.
The reactor makes possible conduct of studies with the method of neutron activation analysis allowing scientists to determine chemical composition of the studied samples: soil, water, atmosphere, etc. For example, data on the properties of soil, water and atmosphere can help develop the programs for an efficient use of natural resources and a continuous environmental monitoring. Scientists also use a neutron activation analysis to perform studies of rocks, to determine availability of natural minerals in the studied samples and an elemental composition of archaeological artifacts. In forensics, this method is used for doing analysis of crime scene evidence.
The preclinical cyclotron-radiopharmacological complex equipped with a cyclotron (particle accelerator) is designed for production of a wide range of radiopharmaceuticals to be supplied to medical clinics in Bolivia for diagnosis and treatment of oncological diseases. One of such medical centres is located directly next to the research centre site. The production facilities of the preclinical complex will provide the Bolivia’s centres with radiopharmaceuticals for clinical trials of more than 5,000 patients per year. Technological line was tested late last year, and a pilot batch of radiopharmaceuticals was obtained.
The multi-purpose irradiation centre equipped with a gamma-ray unit is aimed at solution of such problems as the increase of the shelf life of food products, provision of their food security and development of agricultural exports.
Today, over 40 world countries use successfully the food processing technology, and its safety is officially recognised by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the IAEA and the World Health Organization. The technology is effective in killing germs, bacteria, viruses and pests, and helping to keep fruit and vegetables fresh. The food processed at the irradiation centre stores longer without the use of high temperatures and chemicals.
Thanks to this, local companies will be able to export their products over long distances and to the other continents. Globally, this technology can reduce food waste by 50%. In addition, installation of the irradiation centre makes possible sterilisation of a variety of medical products (masks, gloves, syringes and other materials and products).
The laboratory of radiobiology and radioecology is designed for making analysis of biological materials, including soil and water so that to identify various pollutants. In addition, it will be possible to use the laboratory for the studies of breeding technologies to develop new types of crops resistant to natural influences.
The research centre construction has four stages. The first and the second ones involve construction of the radiopharmaceutical production facility and a multi-purpose irradiation centre. At present, commissioning work of the radiopharmaceutical production facility is complete, and the first drugs received; at the irradiation centre, preparations are underway for loading the sources of ionising radiation. At the same time, construction of the third and the fourth stages of the project is going on, and the territory landscaping is underway.
Personnel are the key to everything
Training of specialists is another important task of the centre. It is planned that the research centre will employ the Bolivian specialists with specialised education. Creation of the total of about 500 jobs for Bolivian citizens is planned as part of the contract. Approximately the same number of local residents is involved in the construction of the centre.
The Russian party provides a comprehensive support to its Bolivian colleagues in training of the highly qualified personnel for the centre. Currently, the leading Russian technical universities deal with implementation of an educational program aimed at training of the Bolivians in nuclear specialties and the related ones.
Over the past six years, 132 Bolivian students have been enrolled for training. These young people can expect to get prestigious jobs at the centre and use their knowledge for Bolivia’s future scientific development.
On the riverside
The construction of the centre and training of the specialists opens the door to further development of the nuclear industry in the region.
“We appreciate the trust of the Bolivian government, and we are definitely open for a dialogue with our partners concerning other possible areas of cooperation. The Rosatom State Corporation has a high scientific and technological potential and competences in a variety of fields, such as nuclear medicine, wind and hydrogen power, energy storage and many others. Perhaps, in the future, the Republic will consider possibility of partnership with the Rosatom in other areas. Time will show,” the Rosatom responded to the Global Energy Assocation inquiry.
In addition, it is possible that the construction of the research centre in Bolivia will launch new promising contracts with the other Latin American countries.
“Now the Rosatom deals with promotion of the research projects under the brand name RIVER (Research Innovative VErsatile Reactor). This product line offers a flexible approach to implementation of the non-energy applications of nuclear and radiation technologies. It consists of several project solutions adapted to the customers’ needs. These include construction of the Centre for Nuclear Research and Technology based on the research reactor.”
As the Head of the Bolivian Nuclear Energy Agency says, Bolivia is also interested in development of small-scale nuclear power plants. “We are a small country in terms of electricity consumption. Nevertheless, we can evaluate the possibilities of modular reactors, such as a floating reactor, which are currently produced and studied, including in Russia. These are small systems providing cogeneration and water desalination, which is also interesting… In general, there is still a lot to be explored in the energy sector,” Hortensia Jiménez told Global Energy.