IAEA Initiative Sets Ambitious Goals to Support Safe and Secure Deployment of SMRs

Enhanced harmonization of regulatory activities and the standardization of industrial approaches are expected as the outcome of a new IAEA initiative, which kicked off in June. Senior nuclear regulators and industry leaders met for the first time under the IAEA’s Nuclear Harmonization and Standardization Initiative (NHSI) on 23-24 June to discuss roadmaps to accelerate the safe and secure deployment of advanced nuclear reactors, with a particular focus on small modular reactors (SMRs).

The NHSI aims to facilitate the safe and secure deployment of SMRs to maximize their contribution to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050. At last week’s kick-off meeting, 125 participants from 33 countries worked in two separate but complementary tracks – one for regulators and the other for technology holders and operators – to develop a joint workplan through 2024.

“In nuclear, we must have the highest standards of nuclear safety and security – they are indispensable for the public, governments and investors. Nuclear safety, security and safeguards will be the litmus test for deployable reactors at the scale needed. The NHSI is not about cutting corners – it is about getting it right and getting there fast,” stated IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi during the opening session.

Increased regulatory collaboration

Under the regulatory track, three working groups will work in parallel to: build an information sharing framework, develop an international pre-licensing regulatory design review and develop approaches to leverage other regulator’s reviews. “The goal is to greatly increase regulatory collaboration to avoid duplication of regulatory efforts, increase efficiency and facilitate reaching common regulatory positions without compromising nuclear safety and national sovereignty,” said Anna Bradford, Director of Nuclear Installation Safety at the IAEA and chair of the regulatory track.

Participants discussed how countries could use other regulators’ review as a source of input. “We all agreed that a document on how to use other regulators’ reviews would be useful. There is good experience from embarking countries, and we will also look at the conclusions of the SMR Regulators’ Forum,” Bradford said. The IAEA may also develop a new review mission, which will assess countries’ SMR regulatory review process against the IAEA safety standards, helping to build confidence in regulatory reviews that could then be more easily used by other regulators.

Participants agreed an international pre-licensing regulatory review for generic designs would be valuable, and it should follow an internationally agreed process and criteria. A pre-licensing review focuses on generic designs without the consideration of site-specific and organizational aspects that are traditionally part of licensing reviews. Under this approach, technical aspects of the design would be considered internationally, while the national regulatory assessment would also cover site-specific aspects. “The advantage of such a process is that it will avoid repetition among regulatory reviews and will help establish the basis for regulatory decisions on the safety of a design while preserving national sovereignty,” Bradford said.

The NHSI participants worked in two separate but complementary tracks – one for regulators and the other for industry – to develop a joint workplan through 2024. (Photo: A. Tarhi/IAEA)

Standardized industrial approaches

The goal of the industry track is to develop more standardized industrial approaches for SMR manufacturing, construction and operations that can reduce licensing timelines, costs and, ultimately, the time to deploy SMRs. The SMR business model is often based on serial production, which means that after the deployment of the first-of-a-kind reactor, cost and time savings materialize under a standardized approach. The industry track focused on four objectives: harmonization of high-level user requirements, information sharing on national standards and codes, experiments and validation of simulation computer codes to model SMRs and accelerating the implementation of a nuclear infrastructure for SMRs.

“User requirements are based on the utilities’ needs and must be consistent with IAEA safety standards,” said Aline des Cloizeaux, Director of the Division of Nuclear Power at the IAEA and chair of the industry track. “There is a general agreement on the need for technology neutral utility requirements, as this will help standardize user specifications and help technology developers to align with the market.” She also stated the need to consider non-electrical applications and non-traditional end users when defining industry standards.

Codes and standards are requirements and rules for the design, construction and operation of structures, systems and components, and they are issued by national and global organizations, such as the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). The challenge with harmonizing codes and standards is that each country may have different requirements. For codes and standards that apply to SMRs, equivalencies among existing requirements will be identified, and the NHSI will collect and share information through a platform that will expand to advanced manufacturing standards and customization for SMRs. Furthermore, the NHSI proposed resource sharing among experimental facilities, technology holders and technical support organizations (TSOs) to validate simulation computer codes to model SMRs, which are used to support the design and safety analysis that regulators review to grant licenses. TSOs provide expertise and services to support nuclear and radiation safety and all related scientific and technical issues.

The IAEA Milestones Approach, which includes 19 steps in the development of nuclear infrastructure – from nuclear safety and security to human resource development and funding – is under revision to include the development of SMRs, and the NHSI will engage with embarking or expanding countries to include scenarios involving different forms of advanced reactors. “The goal is to assist countries considering the development of SMRs in streamlining and accelerating infrastructure development, which could reduce the amount of time from the initial consideration of the nuclear power option to operation,” des Cloizeaux said.

An important area for collaboration between both tracks is the establishment of solutions to facilitate information sharing on particular SMR designs and their safety and security implications. The regulators’ task is to define what is needed in terms of information sharing to be able to work with other regulators. “The solution will come from both industry and governments,” Bradford said. “We need industry feedback and input because industry has a big say in what they are comfortable sharing with regulators to facilitate their international collaboration.”

Through this kick-off meeting, both tracks have “developed ambitious but feasible programmes of work that build on previous activities and that progressively make important steps to help the harmonization and standardization of design and construction and harmonization of regulatory approaches,” Mr Grossi stated. “I strongly believe that the NHSI will be a true game changer.”

The IAEA will host the next NHSI plenary in 2023 to take stock of progress between now and then.

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