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Accelerators and detectors

Accelerators and detectors

Cutting-edge accelerator technologies are key to success for the MYRRHA research reactor

17 Feb 2022 Sponsored by SCK CEN

The MYRRHA project in Belgium is seeking enthusiastic scientists, engineers and project managers with a talent for cross-disciplinary collaboration

The MYRRHA project
Big science, big vision: the MYRRHA project provides early-career scientists and engineers with an opportunity to shape the delivery and realization of a unique research facility. (Courtesy: SCK CEN)

A first-of-its-kind, next-generation research reactor is taking shape on the campus of SCK CEN, the Belgian Nuclear Research Centre in Mol, opening up opportunities for physicists, engineers and technologists to transform an ambitious scientific vision into operational reality over the next 15 years and beyond. With a capital cost of several hundred million Euros, the Multi-purpose hYbrid Research Reactor for High-tech Applications (MYRRHA) represents big science on an ambitious canvas – consisting of a subcritical nuclear reactor driven by a high-power proton linear accelerator, such that the fission reaction is sustained exclusively by the accelerated proton beam (i.e. turning off the proton beam results in immediate and safe shut-down of the reactor).

The implementation of MYRRHA is already under way, with Phase 1 of construction – the so-called MINERVA project – focused on completing the initial section of the proton linac (up to 100 MeV) in 2026. Other MINERVA deliverables include the Proton Target Facility (which will produce radio-isotopes for fundamental physics research and medical applications) and the Full Power Facility (to investigate advanced materials for nuclear fusion). The principal aim in this first phase is to confirm the linac’s reliability in advance of Phase 2 scale-up (due for completion in 2033) to the 400 m long accelerator system that will deliver the 600 MeV proton beam ultimately needed to drive the MYRRHA research reactor. Commissioning of the latter – a Pb-Bi eutectic-cooled and double-walled, unpressurized pool-type reactor with a maximum thermal output of 100 MW – represents the third and final phase of MYRRHA construction and is presently scheduled for 2036.

Here, Hamid Aït Abderrahim, director of MYRRHA and SCK CEN deputy director-general for international affairs, talks to Physics World about the project’s ongoing transition from R&D, demonstration and prototyping into construction and realization.

What does your leadership role involve on the MYRRHA project?

My remit is to ensure that long-term domestic and international financing is in place, while overseeing the design, development and construction effort versus budget and our phased implementation schedule. Externally, I’m responsible for steering MYRRHA’s growing list of strategic partnerships with other big science facilities, while I’m also ultimately accountable for making sure that the core project team – currently around 200 staff at SCK CEN as well as external contractors – has the right mix of skills, experience and specialisms.

Why should early-career scientists and engineers consider MYRRHA as a potential next step in their professional development?

This is an opportunity to shape the delivery and realization of a unique research facility that will address grand societal challenges along several major pathways – from advanced methods to deal with high-level nuclear waste to the at-scale production of medical radioisotopes for the diagnosis and treatment of cancer. At the same time, MYRRHA will enable a diverse research programme in nuclear physics, atomic physics and the study of fundamental interactions, while providing a capability to evaluate next-generation materials with applications in future nuclear fusion reactors. It’s a broad-scope and long-term research endeavour.

How is work progressing with MINERVA, the first phase of the MYRRHA project?

The MINERVA team is overseen by a technical director, with around 85 staff now largely focused on prototyping and realization of the core building blocks for this phase of the project – specifically, the 100 MeV linac, the Proton Target Facility, the Full Power Facility, as well as associated instrumentation and control systems.

Hamid Aït Abderrahim

This team is also working with – and managing – a network of industry contractors on development and installation of a range of auxiliary systems (e.g. radio-frequency cavities, solid-state amplifiers, cryogenics). In parallel, we have around 100 other full-time staff already working on Phase 2 and Phase 3 of MYRRHA, though the emphasis for this group is still skewed towards R&D, design and nuclear licensing and safety studies relating to the reactor.

Presumably the MYRRHA project team will need to scale and adapt over the next five years?

Absolutely. We need constant evolution in terms of our personnel and collective capability – from the initial emphasis on R&D, demonstration and prototyping into the construction and delivery phase of MINERVA. Right now, we’re looking for talented accelerator physicists as well as instrumentation and control experts with experience of linac implementation and operation. We’re also interested in engaging senior designers and mechanical engineers with a background in nuclear reactor technologies and applications.

Equally important, given that MYRRHA is a first-of-a-kind facility, there’s a real desire to support the professional development of our internal experts in key enabling technologies like vacuum, cryogenics, RF systems and high-speed electronics. Nurturing that talent pipeline will be fundamental to us delivering versus MYRRHA’s long-term project roadmap.

So this first-of-a-kind research facility will inevitably require a unique linac capability?

The MYRRHA proton linac is no ordinary linac and will necessitate a fundamental leap forward in accelerator technology. We’re working on game-changing innovations to achieve unprecedented uptime performance – in effect, an almost two orders-of-magnitude improvement versus today’s leading-edge accelerators, yielding continuous-wave proton delivery with almost no tripping out of the main beam. All told, that’s going to mean bulletproof reliability for the accelerator components and subsystems, as well as a fault-tolerant design that exploits twin injectors and, downstream of the injector module, the deployment of ultrafast electronics and dynamic compensation schemes.

How important is collaboration between MYRRHA and other big science laboratories?

We have open and collaborative relationships with a network of large-scale research facilities, sharing specialist domain knowledge and expertise across a range of component and subsystem technologies of mutual interest. Our linac engineers, for example, are in close contact with their counterparts at CERN (Geneva, Switzerland); several CNRS laboratories in France, including IPN Orsay, LPSC, LAL, IPHC and Subatech; IAP (Frankfurt Goethe University) and DESY (Hamburg) in Germany; and the European Spallation Source (Lund, Sweden).

Outside Europe, we have initiated joint development projects with the likes of the Spallation Neutron Source (Oak Ridge, Tennessee, US), TRIUMF (Vancouver, Canada) and J-PARC (Tokai, Japan). These collaborations are a win-win in terms of the partners’ overall productivity and fundamental to the successful delivery of MINERVA in the near term and MYRRHA over the long term.

  • Call for applications: the MYRRHA management team is currently recruiting for a number of positions to support the design, development and construction of the project’s proton linear accelerator. Open vacancies include RF engineer/RF physicist; power converter engineer; accelerator integrator; and embedded systems engineer for particle accelerator applications. Other profiles of interest include nuclear engineers, mechanical engineers, nuclear safety experts, project management engineers with knowledge of nuclear safety, as well as research scientists specializing in heavy liquid metals (Pb or Pb-Bi).

MYRRHA: the view from the project team

Open, warm, cosmopolitan: that’s how Alexander Denisov, project manager for the MYRRHA target facilities, describes the working environment at SCK CEN. “Inclusivity is key here,” says Denisov. “After all, the MYRRHA project team comprises scientists, engineers and other specialists from across the EU, Eastern Europe, UK, Africa, Asia and North America. It’s very much a cross-disciplinary and multicultural melting pot.”

Equally important, especially for young scientists and engineers, is the opportunity that MYRRHA presents to do unique and rewarding work. “The MYRRHA project is a trail-blazer in many ways,” he adds, “so talented scientists and engineers are well positioned as they seek to establish and build their professional reputation.”

As with all big science initiatives, collaboration is hard-wired into MYRRHA’s collective DNA. Early-career researchers and engineers, for example, are often required to engage directly with the project’s scientific advisory boards as well as MYRRHA’s scientific partners (the likes of CERN, TRIUMF and ESS) and the facility’s nascent community of research users.

“We’re well funded and moving fast towards our near-term goal of delivering MINERVA by the end of 2026,” notes Denisov. “For sure, MYRRHA team members will be able to tackle all sorts of challenges – across R&D, design, construction, commissioning and acceptance – that they will not encounter anywhere else.”

For Karolien Saenen, who coordinates the building design and associated infrastructure for MINERVA’s scientific systems, it is the diversity of interactions on the project that is especially exciting – if sometimes challenging. “I need to work with multiple cross-disciplinary teams spanning research, engineering, project management and infrastructure,” she explains. “It’s a warm and welcoming community, though – a real collective effort where everyone is aligned and pulling in the same direction.”

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