That’s the story behind the first stone being laid, in the summer of 1952, of the nuclear research centre SCK-CEN. It was established in Mol, in the heart of the Kempen, a region that was quite underdeveloped in the 1950s. Now the small town in Antwerp province is known internationally as a centre of nuclear expertise.
For the construction of this large research park – where three nuclear reactors would be built, together with several labs, hundreds of offices and some nuclear waste depositories – the Belgian government bought land from the royal family. Last month, Prince Filip returned to the former royal domain on an official visit to SCK-CEN. While doing some nuclear sightseeing and attending an academic conference on the centre’s history and future, he learned that, in spite of the bad reputation nuclear energy has had since Chernobyl and, more recently, Fukushima, the people at SCK-CEN feel quite secure about their future.
Nuclear energy provides job security for a very long time because nuclear reactors produce waste that stays radioactive for thousands of years and thus has to be processed and stored safely. Even if Belgium were to close all seven reactors at Doel and Tihange tomorrow, it wouldn’t be able to turn the page and forget about nuclear energy. “We would still have work to do for at least a century,” says Eric Van Walle, director-general of SCK-CEN. “In order to manage our nuclear inheritance safely and responsibly, we have to keep up with our nuclear workforce. So we have to continue investing in training young people to become nuclear experts.”
In fact, SCK-CEN could even make a profit from a nuclear phase-out. During the past two decades, the centre was the first in the world to successfully dismantle a pressurised water reactor. The BR3 reactor (BR stands for Belgian Reactor) was completely dismantled and cut into pieces, which were later stored as nuclear waste. This knowhow could become very valuable in the near future, as some countries such as Germany have already started their nuclear phase-out programme.
But SCK-CEN also develops non-nuclear applications, like the production of radioactive isotopes for medical imaging and diagnosing. The BR2 is one of only five reactors in the world that produce technetium-99, an isotope used in tens of millions of medical diagnostic procedures. Two years ago it became clear how crucial BR2’s role is in the production of the isotope.
During the first half of 2010, two of the five reactors were shut down for maintenance, and the supply of the life-saving isotope was suddenly threatened. Howard Gutman, the US ambassador to Belgium and one of the speakers at the academic session at SCK-CEN, remembers how delicate the situation was. “Early in 2010 I got a phone call from the White House. The US administration urged me to persuade the people from SCK-CEN to raise their production of technetium-99. Until then, I didn’t know anything about these medical isotopes, but I learned fast.”
SCK-CEN listened and raised its production by 50%, which again secured the world supply of the isotope. Gutman: “If there’s one thing for which Belgium is deeply respected within the US administration, it’s the country’s nuclear expertise.”
On that warm day in June, Prince Filip also visited the new Guinevere, a low-power test reactor that functions as a scale model of the Myrrha project. The aim of this highly ambitious – and unique – project is to build a reactor driven by fast neutrons delivered by an accelerator. When Myrrha is in operation (estimated around 2023), it will be possible to incinerate highly radioactive nuclear waste ( for example, plutonium) by transforming it into waste that is much less radiotoxic – a process called transmutation.
“Unlike conventional reactors, Myrrha and Guinevere produce fast neutrons capable of burning radioactive waste, and their core is also subcritical so that the system remains highly secure,” explains Van Walle. “Since they are subcritical, these reactors need an external neutron source – the accelerator. The reactor is driven by the accelerator and is thus very easy to control.”
In the long run, Myrrha will also overtake the BR2 reactor facilities and some of its current tasks, like the production of medical isotopes. By combining innovative research in both nuclear and non-nuclear applications, SCK-CEN is betting on multiple horses to secure its leading position as a research centre in the 21st century.