Frequently Asked Questions about the Safety of the Research Reactor BER II

(last updated January 2017)

1. Why do we need a research reactor in Berlin?

The research reactor BER II delivers neutrons for scientific studies. Neutrons are uncharged particles – parts of an atom's nucleus – that are excellently suited to studying materials. Neutrons can be bundled together into a ray, much like the way light can, and then shined onto many different kinds of sample. A neutron source is like a large microscope that researchers can use to study the inner properties of materials. Scientists from many disciplines, such as biologists, chemists, physicists, medical physicists, materials scientists, and even art historians, use our research reactor BER II to find answers to their questions. The research reactor is not used for developing or sampling nuclear power technology.

Research using neutrons delivers insights that scientists cannot obtain using other research methods. Many of the technologies we use today were researched using neutrons, much of which over the decades has been performed at the Berlin research reactor because of its unique experimental conditions.

However, the HZB has changed its scientific profile as part of a strategy process and corresponds to the decision of the Supervisory Board to shut down the neutron source BER II at the end of 2019. For our users, the focus now is on the operation and further development of the photon source BESSY II.

2. How is the research reactor BER II of Helmholtz Zentrum Berlin different from a nuclear power plant?

Our research reactor BER II in Berlin-Wannsee cannot be compared with a nuclear power plant. It is not used to produce heat or electricity. We produce neutrons by nuclear fission for use in research. Neutrons are tiny, electrically neutral particles (see 1).

At Helmholtz Zentrum Berlin, they are needed to understand the deep, inner structure of matter to improve solar cells, for example, or to answer long-standing questions in archaeology, biology and many other fields of research. Given their different purposes, they are built very differently as well. The research reactor works at low temperature and at normal pressure. A power plant, on the other hand, produces steam at high temperature and pressure for generating electricity. Because this is not the case, our research reactor does not have a reactor pressure vessel as nuclear power plants do. Since we do not use the excess heat, it is released through heat exchangers and cooling towers. To compare, the power of our research reactor is 10 megawatts. The thermal power of an average nuclear power plant is 3,000 to 4,000 megawatts.

3. What fuel elements are used in the research reactor BER II?

BER II works with so-called LEU, or low-enriched uranium. The concentration of the isotope 235 is lower than 20%.

4. What safety measures exist to monitor operation of the research reactor, or to stop the nuclear fission if necessary?

The research reactor has automatic shutdown systems that will be triggered by any deviation from normal operating conditions. This includes failure of instruments and controls, for example. Other systems will immediately cut in, otherwise the reactor will be shut down. Control rods will drop down into the reactor core if necessary to stop the nuclear fission chain reaction directly (see also Question 6).

5. How is the cooling system at BER II built?

The research reactor is a so-called "pool-type reactor" or "swimming pool reactor": The core of the reactor is immersed in an open pool of water. The core contains around 7 kilograms of fissile uranium 235, which is needed for nuclear fission. The research reactor consumes 2.5 kilograms of this uranium per year. By comparison, nuclear power plants consume around 1.5 metric tons of fissile uranium per year. The water around the reactor core serves as three things: a neutron moderator, meaning it slows down the fast neutrons released during fission, which then sustain the chain reaction; a cooling agent; and a radiation shield.

This design has a crucial advantage: since no pressure vessel is present, the entire pool is under normal pressure. The high temperatures and pressures typical of nuclear power plants do not occur. The water in the pool heats to around 40° Celsius during operation. The heat is dissipated through heat exchangers and pumped in a circuit. No water is released to the outside.

6. What happens if the cooling fails?

There are control rods held suspended above the reactor core by electromagnets so that, if the electricity cuts out, they will fall down under their own weight into the reactor core and thereby shut the reactor down. Once nuclear fission has stopped, the core requires only one minute of active cooling. This would be ensured by the continuation of the pumps, which are also backed up by batteries. After this one minute of active cooling, the natural convection of the water (dissipation of heat through the movement of water molecules) is enough to dissipate the residual heat on its own. That means no pumps are required to dissipate the residual heat. Nevertheless, there are two backup diesel generators should there ever be an electrical power outage.

7. How is the research reactor BER II tested for safety?

The supervisory authority, the Senate Department for Health, Environment and Consumer Protection, regularly tests the safety of the research reactor with the assistance of independent experts. Furthermore, members of the European Atomic Energy Community (EURATOM) and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) verify the stocks of nuclear fuels every year. Operation of the facility is subject to the strictest safety requirements.

8. Where are the spent fuel elements of BER II stored, and how are they disposed of?

Far fewer fuel elements are spent than in a nuclear power plant. Until transporting, they are kept in a spent fuel pool, where their power drops to below 40 watts. Only then they will be disposed. The transportation of spent fuel elements takes place approximately every two or three years in special thick-walled special containers. Until May 2016, the return to the United States is contractually regulated. For the later, until the end of operation (end of 2019) incurred spent fuel elements, the interim storage in Ahaus has been contractually agreed.

9. What measures do the operators take against terrorist attacks?

A security service seamlessly guards the entire HZB premises. Unauthorized entering of the campus cannot go unnoticed. The reactor itself and its surroundings are additionally guarded by armed security personnel who are trained and examined according to the relevant regulations. The facility is under tightest monitoring and access control.

10. What protection does the reactor building offer?

The research reactor is built according to the prevailing safety regulations. These do not call for additional building containment. The roof of the building is a brick-lined steel skeleton construction that is lined gas-tight inside with steel plates. The hall guarantees enclosure of all materials used and arising in operation. The hall is under slightly negative pressure, so that if a crack should ever form, air would not flow outwards, but would be drawn inwards instead.

11. What danger exists if the research reactor lies beneath the flight route of Berlin Brandenburg International airport?

The Noise Commission gave its recommendation on 9 May 2011 that the flight routes should not pass across Wannsee. We welcome this decision. Yet, even if the Deutsche Flugsicherung does not agree with these suggestions, aircraft taking off from Berlin Brandenburg airport "Willy Brandt" that would fly over Wannsee close to BER II would have already reached an altitude of around 1.5 to 2 kilometres. As above any nuclear facility in Germany, there is a flight restriction above BER II to approximately 700 metres altitude. This flight restriction would therefore be respected.

12. Is the research reactor currently in operation?

The research reactor operates in the usual mode: 3 weeks experimental operation alternates with one week maintenance. All activities at BER II take place in close consultation and after approval by the competent authorities that it seek the opinion of independent experts.

By the end of 2019 the research reactor BER II will be operated in this mode, after which it will be switched off according to the decision of the Supervisory Board.

13. Why there was renovation work at BER II?

From October 2010 to March 2012 alterations were planned many years in advance and were not related to the vetting discussed in the media (stress test). Some parts and components are routinely replaced. This is necessary as soon as a certain amount of neutrons are flowed through by it. The scientists at the HZB have also used the reconstruction period to improve the scientific instruments and to renew the neutron guides so that up to five times more neutrons reach the instruments. For science, this is a huge improvement that the BER II holds internationally competitive.

14. What is the risk if the research reactor is under the flight path of the BBI?

Also for the BER II a so-called stress test was carried out 2012. This refers to analyzes of how a reactor behaves in certain scenarios - such as power failure, flood, earthquake. Such scenarios were considered for the research reactor BER II. This was followed by an evaluation of the competent authorities. In this, the experts of the plant have granted a high degree of robustness. The BER II has passed the by the Senate coordinated stress test successfully.

15. Why does a disaster control plan exist for BER II?

Operation of the research reactor results unavoidably in radioactive materials. We have taken many measures to ensure these remain contained during every operating phase of the research reactor. Nevertheless, the Berlin and Brandenburg authorities have drafted a detailed disaster control plan to allow quick, efficient and effective action to be taken even in an extreme, hypothetical situation that can only be caused by extreme impact from outside. This disaster control plan defines the tasks for all authorities and bodies involved in the event of any fear that radioactive materials may be released into the environment. HZB distributes a pamphlet every five years informing the population around the research reactor about this disaster control plan. This is regulation, as stipulated in § 53 of the Radiation Protection Ordinance (Strahlenschutzverordnung). The last information pamphlet distributed was in the end of 2014.

16. Why is the state collection centre for radioactive waste on the premises of HZB in Wannsee?

Every German federal state is under obligation by the German Atomic Energy Act to set up a state collection centre for processing and storing the radioactive waste originating in its area. The Land of Berlin has entrusted Helmholtz Zentrum Berlin to operate the state collection centre for radioactive waste, ZRA (Zentralstelle für radioaktive Abfälle). The ZRA houses low-level to intermediate-level radioactive materials that arise primarily from medicine, industry, research and teaching. No fuel elements from the research reactor are stored at the ZRA. The spent fuel elements are returned to the USA.

17. Is it possible to visit the research reactor?

To guarantee safe operation, the operating personnel must be allowed to work in concentration and undisturbed. The research reactor BER II can therefore only be visited by appointment. Those wishing to take a visit must go through security clearances by the responsible offices.
However, on Open House Day, we allow interested visitors to take guided tours through the experimental halls around the research reactor. Our scientists and reactor experts will be there on these days to answer questions about the facility and the safety measures.

18. How long does the research reactor is still operating?

The scientific work at BER II will be continued until the 31.12.2019. After that, the HZB stop the research with neutrons. This is linked to a strategic reorientation of the research. From 2020 we are focusing on the research with photons and the expansion of our energy research. At the center of the institutional strategy is the orientation of the HZB into a modern energy research center with a focus on materials research. As a successful operator of large-scale scientific equipment, we will continue to develop the photon source BESSY II and in the medium term we also advance plans for a successor device BESSY III.