Joint Research Centre - European Commission

The European Commission's in-house science service
European Commission

1957 -> 1969

Putting the elements together

Following the Second World War, nuclear energy was seen as one of the main future means of energy generation in Europe. As the nuclear industry started to expand at an unprecedented rate, national authorities in many European countries considered it critical to be able to further develop nuclear knowledge: for example, neutron data were urgently needed for reactor design, waste management and reactor safety calculations.

With a view to achieving this, in 1957 the European Atomic Energy Community (Euratom) Treaty was signed by six European countries. This called for the European Commission to establish a Joint Nuclear Research Centre, and a budget and research activities for the following years were defined. A series of sites at different locations across Europe were taken over by the European Commission. Together, these institutes would work to research nuclear energy, safety and security.

And so it began

Scientist in JRC lab, early 1960s

JRC laboratory for analytical chemistry

1958 marked the start of the construction of a nuclear research establishment at Ispra, Italy. The Ispra‑1 nuclear reactor was completed within a year and, in 1959, Italian authorities agreed to pass the site over to the European Commission. The Ispra 1 nuclear reactor was then completed and later, in 1962, design work began for another reactor named ESSOR.

These were used for the initial nuclear research themes at Ispra, which were directed towards reactor development (reactor physics, materials and safety) and learning more about the fuel cycle.

High flux in a low country

Construction of the HFR reactor, Petten

Construction of the HFR reactor, Petten

In 1957, Dutch authorities decided to establish the Reactor Centre Netherlands (RCN) in Petten, where they would build the High Flux Reactor (HFR) that was to be used for material research. Construction started in August 1957.

In 1962, the reactor became fully operational and the HFR would remain a focal point for nuclear research for many years to come.

The reactor was used for research into safety, for testing new components and fuels for the European civil nuclear power programmes, and for performing materials testing.

A calculated decision

Construction of the Van de Graaff building

Construction of the Van de Graaff building

Meanwhile, in 1960, the Central Bureau for Nuclear Measurements (CBNM), was established in Geel, Belgium. The CBNM specialised in nuclear measurements for isotope analysis and absolute measurements of radiation and neutron absorption, essential in understanding how to safely produce nuclear energy.

In 1962, the Van de Graaff (VdG) accelerator was installed and, in 1965, the linear electron accelerator was inaugurated. In addition, mass spectrometry laboratories were constructed between 1962 and 1963.

Impressive pin production

Construction of the ITU in 1963

Construction of the ITU in 1963

The laboratories of the Institute for Transuranium Elements (ITU) became operational in 1964 and the “hot cells” needed for examining irradiated fuels were used from 1966 onwards.

The first plutonium sample to be tested was introduced into a glove box on 10 February 1965.

Manipulating fuel rods - safety precautions

Manipulating fuel rods - safety precautions

The initial results on nuclear fuels were obtained by the research teams in an impressively short time.

The most spectacular outcome was the production of 2 100 metallic fuel pins for the French reactor Masurca in Cadarache – this was achieved in just nine months.


First of a kind

Reactor safety research in ECO

Reactor safety research in ECO

Experiments in Ispra included studies on and the development of European prototypes for novel lines of nuclear power reactors, such as ORGEL (Organique-Eau Lourde), with the ORGEL Critical experiment (ECO) and the construction of the reactor experiment ESSOR (Essai ORGEL).