Nathaniel Taylor, NPTS ’17

Prague Nuclear Research Reactor Practicum, 2017

Summary of Experience

The Czech Research Reactor Practicum was, without a doubt, one of the most valuable educational experiences I have had at MIIS or anywhere else thus far. Over two weeks I was able to see where the theory behind nonproliferation and safeguards meets practice; in short, I was able to see with my own eyes how everything that I have been studying actually works. At its core, nonproliferation is about the international governance and regulation about the use of certain types of technology. A career in nonproliferation requires a deep knowledge of policy, diplomacy, and international organizations on the one hand, as well as good familiarity with the science underpinning the technology on the other. Most of us came from an almost entirely policy-oriented educational background, so having physical objects in front of us to aid our understanding of the complex scientific and engineering principles behind them was invaluable.

Allow me to give an example of how and why this experience was so useful: I have done a great deal of reading and writing about the concept of physical protection, that is maintaining the security of nuclear sites and materials from various man-made threats. Prior to the Practicum, I had an in-depth knowledge of the policy architecture related to this concept on both the national and international levels, but our tour of the Temelín Nuclear Power Plant was the first time I gained a sense of the sheer scale of both the facility and the task of protecting it. It is one thing to look at a schematic of a pressurized water reactor, it is another thing entirely to see how physically large one is. It gives one a different perspective and a healthy respect for the challenge.

Likewise, touring a facility where Škoda (a Czech engineering firm) manufactures casks for spent nuclear fuel gave me a sense of how incredibly difficult it would be for a malfactor to actually break into one of these casks, as well as the time and resources associated with their production. Our tour of a machine shop where Škoda manufactures control rod drives for nuclear power plants allowed us to see the complexity of every single aspect of a nuclear power plant, and the amount of specialization required to manufacture even a small part of one. We also attended lectures given by Škoda officials on the economics of nuclear power plant operation and how they are affected by the policy. 

Perhaps most valuable to us and our future careers were the considerable time we spent working with the VR-1 5 kW “Sparrow” Research Reactor, located on the University campus. The VR-1 is a very low power research reactor (it normally does not generate enough power to run even a hair dryer), and thus it is very simple – ideal for students like us getting our first introduction to the practical aspects of reactor operation. The reactor’s staff gave us scientific demonstrations and hands-on activities on the concepts of neutron detection, neutron activation analysis, and radioactivity monitoring. Our site visits also included tours of 10 mW research reactor and a low power subcritical assembly, allowing us to see the variety that research reactors have in their scope, configuration and purpose.

The reactor staff also gave us in-depth lectures about how the IAEA’s safeguarding requirements are operationalized at a research reactor. This was among the rarest and most valuable opportunities afforded us during the Practicum and is reflective of the generosity of CTU’s staff, as well as the trust our two institutions have placed in one another. Likewise, at the very end of the practicum, we were allowed (in a limited capacity) to operate the reactor under close supervision. This makes for a cool story, but it also drives home how complex even the simplest nuclear reactor really is.

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