The research programmes conducted by IRSN are closely linked to its expert appraisal missions. Nuclear facility safety, health, crisis situation management, environment monitoring and protection, security and non-proliferation of nuclear materials: whatever the field of activity concerned, the research results provide the Institute’s experts with fresh knowledge enabling them to better assess, in total independence, the risks and the mechanisms developed to address these risks.
Upstream of this essentially finalised research, the exploratory research is designed to investigate the relevance of new concepts and new research channels for informing the choices to be made in the future. After being selected by an internal Institute assessment committee, five exploratory research projects were launched in 2021. They involve the use of learning algorithms for the estimation of neutron spectra, the development of a method for measuring the deposition flux of submicron atmospheric particles, the manufacture of an irradiated fuel simulant, the study of the mechanisms of transcriptional and translational implementation and regulation after low-dose exposure to ionising radiation, and the study of the biomolecular factors involved in salivary complications in the treatment of differentiated thyroid cancer coupled with the improvement of dose characterisation in the salivary glands.
Faced with the complexity of the topics dealt with and the extent of the experimental resources required, IRSN conducts its research in partnership, in particular in the framework of projects funded by the European Commission as part of framework programmes for research and innovation, such as Horizon 2020 – for which 33 projects were still active at the Institute in 2021 for the EURATOM component alone – and Horizon Europe, which has just been launched by the OECD/NEA, and at national level by the Agence nationale de la recherche (National research agency).
To define its research policy and orientate its programmes, IRSN can draw on two additional bodies: the research orientation committee, composed of representatives of the Institute’s main stakeholders, and which guarantees the appropriate coverage of the questions and issues, both societal and political, and the scientific council, composed of personalities selected on account of their scientific and technical skills, which advises and supports the Institute in the strategic management of its scientific activities. This council was re-elected in 2021 with 11 members serving a five-year term.







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Development of partnerships in France and abroad

Even if the enduring Covid-19 health crisis continued to limit access to the test facilities, slowing down certain research programmes and inhibiting direct contacts between organisations, to the detriment of intensive collaboration, 2021 nevertheless saw the signing or renewal of major cooperation contracts between IRSN and leading partners, both at home and abroad.

In 2021, IRSN concluded or renewed several partnerships in different fields of research into nuclear safety or radiation protection. At the start of the year, it signed a collaboration agreement for five years with the Gustave-Roussy cancer research centre in the framework of the integrated research project on the radiobiology of tumours and healthy tissues (PIRATT). This is aimed at advancing the scientific knowledge of the benefit/risk balance in radiotherapy with the objective of preserving healthy tissues which are exposed when delivering high doses of radiation for treating tumours. Following the signing of a new framework agreement between CNRS and IRSN in late 2020, the two organisations undertook to structure their partnership through the drafting of a roadmap. The main identified topics gave rise to the organisation of several workshops, which will be used to define the scientific and technical objectives to be pursued over the duration of the agreement and the mechanisms for running the collaboration.

Internationally, IRSN continued its collaboration with the Singapore Nuclear Safety and Research Initiative of Singapore University (NUS/SNRSI), in particular in the fields of radiochemistry and radiobiology. The Institute also signed, on 8 March, a cooperation agreement with the Japanese University of Medicine of Fukushima aimed at reinforcing the current exchanges — in particular between scientists and students — as well as the scientific collaborations addressing the consequences of a nuclear accident. In the field of safety-criticality research, the Institute and the US Department of Energy (DOE) renewed, without a time limit, their cooperation agreement, resulting in the production, in the facilities of the Sandia National Laboratory, of the first experiment entirely designed by IRSN.

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Safety research

The study of the phenomenology of the possible initiators of serious reactor accidents (fires or loss of primary coolant) and their potential consequences (core meltdown) with a view to their prevention and their mitigation occupied a central place in 2021 in the safety research conducted by IRSN, alongside the research on the ageing of facilities, and in particular the ageing of the metallic and concrete components of which they are composed.

The IRSN is pursuing a “post-Fukushima” Nuclear Safety and Radiation Protection Research (RSNR) project designated PERFROI, the purpose of which is to study the cooling capacity of a reactor core in a loss-of-coolant accident (LOCA) situation. After launching in 2020, within this framework, an initial test campaign (“COAL”) using an experimental system developed internally and installed in a thermohydraulic loop made available by STERN Lab in Canada, IRSN last year successfully conducted a new phase of its research programme. The results of this second campaign, comprising 26 tests, yielded precious information for the validation and improvement of the digital models, in particular the DRACCAR software, developed by the Institute to simulate LOCA situations and used in support of its expert appraisals.

In May, IRSN brought together the club of users of the ASTEC (Accident Source Term Evaluation Code) software system, who contribute to the progress and development of its new features. Maintained and developed by the Institute, this system can be used to simulate all phenomena involved in a reactor core meltdown accident, from trigger event to source term.

In the field of research into fires, IRSN conducted in June the last phase of the PRISME-3 campaign – a project overseen by the OECD/NEA – with fire tests in corridor spaces, representing a first on the international stage. 2021 also marked the end of the modernisation work on the GALAXIE research platform, situated at Cadarache (Bouches-du-Rhône), whose test facilities enable the Institute to conduct the programmes required for managing the fire risk in nuclear facilities.

In 2021, IRSN began work on six collaborative research projects selected by the European Commission on the ageing of nuclear facility structures and equipment and improving their long-term safety. With regard to ageing, one project concerns the concrete components of a reactor vessel and four others concern the metallic materials of the vessels and components of the primary circuit. A sixth project addresses fracture mechanics in a multi-physics approach to cold shock and vessel failure. These various projects are scheduled to run for 4 years.

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In Brief
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EVA, ASPIC and MIDI are the names of three new nuclear reactor safety research facilities of IRSN dedicated – in the framework of the call for projects: “Nuclear Safety and Radiation Protection Research” (RSNR) – to the study of steel fatigue and of dewatering accidents involving a spent fuel deactivation pool. Located in Cadarache (Bouches-du-Rhône), these facilities were inaugurated on 29 September 2021.

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THE CONCRETE CONSORTIUM launched a programme in September 2020 for a four-year period aimed at eliminating the scientific obstacles linked to managing the ageing of concrete structures. IRSN and its partners – various major academic players in the research into the behaviour of concrete – held a project stage seminar on 18 and 19 November 2021.

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Health research

Although the most notable healthcare research projects in 2021 were dedicated to developing treatments for victims of exposure to high doses of ionising radiation, the year was also marked by the ramping up of research in the human and social sciences applied to radiation protection and its application for healthcare professionals.

Launched in late 2019 for a period of four years and with the support of the ANR (Agence nationale de la recherche – National research agency), the RESCUE project aims to develop a new clinical treatment strategy based on the provision of freezable and ready-to-use hematopoietic grafts for victims of radiation poisoning, following an emergency radiological or nuclear situation, who develop acute radiation syndrome (in its hematopoietic form). Following on from the GIPSIS project, which had made it possible to demonstrate in the laboratory the possibility of generating a long-term functional hematopoietic graft from human induced pluripotent stem cells (hiPSC), the research in the RESCUE project conducted in 2021 aims at validating this proof of concept on a large animal model before moving on to clinical trials.
Still in the field of the treatment of victims of radiation poisoning, 2021 saw the continuation of the ANR INTRUST project, managed by IRSN and designed to develop a treatment for victims of acute radiation syndrome (in its gastrointestinal form). If the tests prove to be conclusive, INTRUST will also open up a new avenue for the handling of patients suffering from digestive complications following radiotherapy and those suffering from a chronic inflammatory disease of the intestine.

In the field of human and social sciences linked to radiation protection, IRSN is conducting ergonomics research to support radiotherapy centres in managing change, such as the appropriation of a new medical imaging system. Another project conducted in 2021 has made it possible to produce, in collaboration with the healthcare professionals concerned, a guide designed to support them in maintaining healthcare safety in situations of technical or material change.
In addition, IRSN has continued, in partnership with the radiotherapy department of the Gustave-Roussy centre, its research project into the methods for analysing risks in a complex and human socio-technical system (MARSCH), with the aim of developing a new approach to risk analysis in radiotherapy.

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In Brief
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An international workshop was organised by IRSN in April 2021 for the MELODI and ALLIANCE research platforms. The purpose of this workshop was to assess the possible contribution of a method developed to transpose the evaluation of the toxicity of chemical stressors (Adverse Outcome Pathway) on health and the environment on to the effects of exposure to radiological stressors. A potential application would be that of simultaneous exposure situations to these two types of stressor.

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ORRCH-IDEeS (pluralist research orientation on chronic risks – initiatives in the territory of Dunkirk for the environment and for health) is a participative research project launched by IRSN in 2021 on the health impacts linked to environmental multi-exposure (nuclear and/or chemical of industrial or agricultural origin) in the Dunkirk region.

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Environmental research

In the field of environmental research, 2021 was particularly notable for the launch of the VSEAL project. The aim of this project is to assess the containment capacity over a very long period of the seals of a geological repository for high level waste (HLW) and intermediate-level long-lived waste (ILW-LL).


Among the research projects launched by IRSN in 2021 in the field of the environment, VSEAL concerns the assessment of the containment capacity over a very long period of the seals of a geological repository for high level waste (HLW) and intermediate-level long-lived waste (ILW-LL). This capacity is based in particular on the hydromechanical resistance of the seals: closure of cells, shafts and chutes. In order to enable its experts to assess the safety files drawn up by ANDRA in the framework of the Cigéo project, IRSN is carrying out active research into this topic.
Conducted in its underground research laboratory in Tournemire (Aveyron), the VSEAL experimental project uses a 1 m-diameter, 10 m-deep excavation equipped with some 60 sensors. The objective is to observe over an approximately 15-year period the effects of resaturation water and hydrogen likely to be produced by the corrosion of storage components on maintaining over time the seal properties of a bentonite seal. This type of clay, capable of swelling significantly, is what has been chosen to seal the Cigéo installation at the end of the period of use.


In January 2021 a commission conducted an audit of the IRSN thematic research group dedicated to environmental risks (GTR-RE). This audit, which mobilised the IRSN teams concerned by this topic, was conducted in the framework of a periodic external assessment of the research activities of IRSN, according to the procedure approved by the High Council for the assessment of research and higher education (HCERES).
Studying radionuclide transfers in atmospheric, marine, terrestrial and continental aquatic environments; studying the eco-toxicological impact of radionuclides; integration of knowledge for environmental risk assessment; cross-functional topics such as associated infrastructures or research and metrological resources: the audit enabled the various teams to take stock of their research activities and to present their five-year projects. The feedback at the end of the audit underlined the quality of the GTR-RE activities and projects, the efficiency of the triple association of observation with experimentation and with modelling, the unique character of the actions undertaken by the GTR-RE in the French and international research landscape, and the relevance of its positioning within European bodies. In addition, in July 2021 the commission formulated recommendations on the benefits of research for IRSN expertise, governance, skills management, infrastructures and research resources, as well as for partnerships, and these recommendations will be set out in an action plan for the five years to come.

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Research linked to the crisis

IRSN published an article in the review Applied Radiation and Isotopes about the development and validation of an algorithm for automating the detection of radioactive trace elements in the ambient air, and reducing the analysis time. By breaking down the measured spectrum into the individual spectra of the radionuclides present, this spectral demixing algorithm is designed to enable rapid detection of a discharge in the case of an incident or accident. It will also contribute to improving the detection limits of radionuclides in the environment, where the artificial radioactivity levels are very low, helping to underpin the Institute’s mission in terms of the radiological monitoring of the environment.