Nuclear regulators debate new challenges

29 September 2017

International cooperation is high in the nuclear industry, but harmonising regulatory processes remains a challenge, delegates heard at the World Nuclear Association's annual symposium held in London recently. In addition, regulatory bodies face new tasks - licensing advanced reactor technologies, enhancing public confidence and assisting newcomer countries.

Regulators panel - Sympo 2017 - 460 (WNA)
The regulators panel at the symposium (Image: World Nuclear Association)

The symposium's first-ever regulators panel, which took place on 15 September, was chaired by Ho Nieh, head of the Division of Nuclear Safety Technology and Regulation at the OECD Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA). It included Christer Viktorsson, director-general of the Federal Authority for Nuclear Regulation (FANR) in the United Arab Emirates; Marc Leblanc, commission secretary at the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC); Richard Savage, chief nuclear inspector at the UK's Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR); Petteri Tiippana, director-general of Finland's STUK; and Alexey Ferapontov, deputy chairman of Russia's Rostechnadzor.

Nieh said: "We've witnessed over the last decade an evolution in the nuclear energy landscape. We saw a period of renaissance in the mid-2000s to the recent downturn in nuclear expansion and new-build activity. Nevertheless, in other parts of the world, nuclear expansion and new entrant activities are still on track and what has remained constant in this period is the need for competent, credible and independent regulation. In combination with the good overall safety performance of the nuclear industry, strong regulators play an essential role in building the trust of government policymakers and also of the public.

"The nuclear supply chain is very international and today we see a very high level of international cooperation among the industry as well as among regulatory bodies, and between the industry and regulators. Programs such as MDEP [Multinational Design Evaluation Program] have been very effective in leveraging resources to have more effective regulatory reviews and, also, to help harmonisation of regulatory practices and standards. Other organisations, like NEA and the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] have many programs to facilitate international cooperation between governments. The NEA has a committee in nuclear regulatory activity, which helps regulators come together to solve problems with practical solutions."

New nuclear versus upgrades

In 2015 and 2016, 20 new nuclear power reactors started supplying electricity. Around 10 GWe of new nuclear capacity was added to the grid each year, which is a higher amount than seen over the preceding 25 years. But the World Nuclear Association's latest Fuel Report projections, released during the symposium, suggest that - unless action is taken - the pace of growth in nuclear generation will slow.

One of the success stories for new build is the UAE.

South Korea's first APR1400 unit entered commercial operation in December 2015, while four such reactors are due to start up at Barakah in Abu Dhabi, by 2020. The Barakah plant is being built for Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation (Enec) by a consortium led by the Korean Electric Power Company (Kepco). Barakah 1 is in the commissioning phase and Viktorsson said FANR expects to issue an operating licence for the unit next year.

Canada, however, has seen upgrades in favour of new build.

About 16% of Canada's electricity comes from nuclear power, with 19 reactors mostly in Ontario providing 13.5 GWe of capacity. All are Candu (Canada deuterium uranium) reactors. The country had plans to expand its nuclear capacity over the next decade by building two more new reactors, but these have been deferred.

Leblanc noted that Canada is "facing a lot of uncertainties" when it comes to new nuclear power plants. After many years of the Nimby (not in my back yard) attitude, the need for a 'social licence' is "very much in the limelight", he said.

"Much of the focus in Canada since Fukushima has not been on new build, but rather on refurbishment, decommissioning, waste management and now small modular reactors. The issue of severe accident and emergency management has also been at the forefront," he said.

Point Lepreau completed refurbishment two years ago; Bruce, one of the largest nuclear facilities in the world, has refurbished four units and has now applied to refurbish its other four; the Darlington facility has already started the refurbishment of the first of four units; and the CNSC last month received an application for the renewal of the Pickering facility until 2028 - eight years beyond its scheduled closure date.

The UK has 15 reactors generating about 21% of its electricity but almost half of this capacity is to be retired by 2025. One is a pressurised water reactor (PWR), while the rest are all advanced gas-cooled reactors.

The first of some 19 GWe of new-generation plants is expected to be online by 2025. EDF Energy and China General Nuclear are building two EPRs at Hinkley Point C in Somerset and plan to build new plants at Sizewell in Suffolk and Bradwell in Essex, the latter using Chinese reactor technology; Horizon Nuclear Power - the UK subsidiary of Japan's Hitachi - plans to deploy the UK ABWR (advanced boiling water reactor) at two sites - Wylfa Newydd, which is on the Isle of Anglesey, and Oldbury-on-Severn, in South Gloucestershire; NuGeneration (NuGen) - the UK joint venture between Japan's Toshiba and France's Engie - plans to build a nuclear power plant of up to 3.8 GWe gross capacity at Moorside, in West Cumbria using AP1000 nuclear reactor technology provided by Westinghouse Electric Company, a group company of Toshiba.

Savage said the UK program is "busy, challenging, inspiring and changing".

"Construction at Hinkley Point C has started, we issued a licence back in 2012. This year, in March, the AP1000 completed the Generic Design Assessment (GDA). The UK ABWR is nearing the end of the GDA process and is on scheduled for completion at the end of the year. And the UK HPR1000 entered the process earlier this year and is scheduled to complete around 2021," he said.

Finland has four nuclear reactors, providing nearly 30% of its electricity, while a fifth reactor is under construction and another is planned. This will take the nuclear contribution to about 60% and replace coal. Loviisa and Olkiluoto use, respectively, VVER-440/V-213e and BWR technology.

Tiippana said he expects an operating licence will be issued next year for Olkiluoto 3, which is an EPR.

Russia has 35 operating reactors of the following designs: VVER-440/230, VVER-440/213, VVER-1000 and VVER-1200 PWR; RBMK light water graphite reactor; graphite-moderated BWR reactor; and BN-600 and BN-800 fast neutron. It also has over 20 nuclear power reactors confirmed or planned for export construction.

Ferapontov said the symposium was one of only a few opportunities for regulators and industry to discuss the various aspects of harmonisation of regulatory processes.

"In Russia, there is strong interaction between the industry and the regulatory body and we can find this in TK322," he said. TK322 is the Technical Committee for standardisation of nuclear engineering, which is a forum for Rostechnadzor, Rosstandart (the Federal Agency for Technical Regulation and Metrology) and Rosatom, the state nuclear corporation.

Harmonised regulatory processes

The World Nuclear Association's working group on Cooperation in Reactor Design Evaluation and Licensing (CORDEL) promotes the achievement of a worldwide regulatory and industry environment where internationally accepted standardised reactor designs can be widely deployed without major design changes, except those dictated by site specific and minor local necessities.

Nieh asked the panel about the World Nuclear Association's Harmony initiative, which includes the aim of harmonised regulatory processes.

Tiippana, who is chairman of the MDEP Policy Group, said the industry has "a lot of expectation" for harmonised licensing. Administered by the NEA, MDEP is a program through which national regulators are working to share technical data and standardise regulations and practices in order to avoid duplication of work.

"The bad news first: to have an international licence for nuclear power plants so that, for example, a licence in Russia could be used in other countries, we are pretty far from that," Tiippana said. "But what we can do in MDEP is enhance our cooperation in design licence reviews."

MDEP has recently decided to establish a "specific working group on the Chinese design", he said, which "can model ways of working together on technical issues". It has also decided to "document the review results more systematically and thoroughly in future", he added. "That documentation will certainly help new countries making their own licensing of a design," he said.

MDEP's "bottom-up approach" to assessing the technical differences between reactor designs, whether these are raised by customers or regulators, leads to "common positions that have an impact when we update the regulatory plans".

MDEP feeds its findings to different organisations that have a role in setting safety standards, such as the IAEA, he said, but MDEP "could do better on the interface between regulatory codes and standards" and on enhancing its cooperation with industry.

Viktorsson said FANR welcomes sharing experience with regulators from other countries.

When the UAE government established FANR in 2009, it stressed that it must adhere to the "transparency principle", he said, which includes interaction with the international community. The second condition is to use the highest safety, security and non-proliferation standards, on which FANR works with the IAEA and other "recognised and developed" regulatory bodies, he said, to "build a national capacity" to manage the UAE's nuclear program.

FANR signed agreements with the ONR and CNSC during the IAEA's 61st General Conference held in Vienna last week. The 'information exchange arrangement' signed with the ONR aims to exchange information on matters related to the peaceful use of nuclear energy. It covers legislation, regulations, licences as well as construction, operation and decommissioning of nuclear installations. The agreement with the CNSC covers the exchange of safety and regulatory-related information. This includes the regulatory aspects of the safety and security of nuclear power plants and sources of radiation, safety-related research in connection with licensing, and regulatory control of nuclear facilities and other aspects.

It is essential for a regulator to "avoid surprises", Viktorsson said, and so FANR uses IAEA safety and security standards, requirements and recommendations as the bases for its legally binding regulations.

FANR also studied international best practice among other regulators, which led to its adoption of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission's (NRC's) 'standard review plan', which NRC staff use when reviewing proposed licensing actions.

"This is a very transparent way of analysing and demonstrating safety for a dialogue with the industry," Viktorsson said.

FANR put more than 1000 questions to Enec before it issued a construction licence for the Barakah plant, he noted. "Everything is documented, which is important for us because we have to transfer the knowledge to the next generation," he said. "In the operating licence phase, where we are now, we have 1600 questions and we are at the end, so I would say that we have succeeded extremely well in this dialogue. Moreover, we haven't delayed construction because the licensing process is going in parallel with the construction," he said. FANR's "two-step licensing process" enables construction to start while it finalises the design and works on issuing the operating licence.

"We have worked extensively in the atmosphere of MDEP, and worked with the Koreans and the NRC because it had already certified the basics of the reactor design and the Koreans developed this further for Shin Kori 3 and 4. We have learnt from them all," he said. "This has allowed us to focus on site-specific things, on the other challenges that we've faced to build a power plant in the specific environment that the UAE presents. These have included design modifications with the electrical system and with cooling," he added.

Two particular challenges FANR faces, he said, are the "long supply chain" and "operational readiness". FANR and Enec "need to work together more" on ensuring that the "safety message gets through to everyone in the supply chain", he said. In May last year, Enec established Nawah Energy Company to operate and maintain Barakah units 1-4. FANR is working with Nawah to "make sure they understand our requirements for operational readiness", he added.

The ONR's Savage said there is a "considerable degree" of standardisation in the nuclear industry, "but this really exists in terms of design safety outcomes". He added: "We stopped short of the standardised regulation of reactor designs."

He outlined three essential steps in the ONR's approach. "The government will need to be convinced that the benefits more than compensate the costs. What I mean by that is harmonised approaches in some way either delivering better standards or cheaper plants and that will need to be offset against a loss, or perceived loss, of potentially national decision-making ability. Secondly, the public will want to see what might this mean to bring better standards and security. Some might be persuaded by cheaper electricity. There's a need for coherent argument in the public domain explaining the benefits of a move to an increased harmonised approach. And thirdly, the regulator really has a key role to play because its staff are independent advisors into government and are trusted with the public."

He added: "As a regulator, I need to be convinced about the net benefit to safety and security, but you can move forward in steps and say, harmonisations could be large and small. In the UK, we have some good experience - our safety assessment principles are benchmarked against IAEA standards. The position statements out of MDEP are really good steps. Inter-regulator stress tests, corporate and peer reviews are all good harmonisation steps."

Licensing new technologies

The panel also discussed how advanced technologies, such as small modular reactors (SMRs), may offer an opportunity for regulators to work together.

Ferapontov said Rostechnadzor and Rosatom aim to "finalise the first steps" in new regulations on lead-cooled fast reactors by the end of 2018/beginning of 2019. With SMRs, he said, "we must take into account those organisations that have no experience of building nuclear facilities" because it will be a "challenge for regulators to prepare them for working with SMRs".

Tiippana said the IAEA is working now on safety standards for SMRs and that MDEP is waiting for these. SMRs offer the possibility for harmonisation among regulators, he added.

Nieh added that there have "already been conversations between designers and regulators" and that there is a "need to ensure regulatory frameworks can be ready, rather than stopping for change".

SMRs are "small miracle reactors", Leblanc said, "given all the hope that's being put into their success, but I'm a regulator and what I really want to know is the obstacles to licensing them."

He added: "There are several indicators that all regulators should get ready for deployment of advanced reactor technologies. Over the last few years, there has been significant interest from the industry and governments on the deployment of SMRs. Specifically, reactor vendors have approached the CNSC to better understand our requirements and expectations, and the licensing process in Canada."

To date, seven vendors have applied to the Canadian regulator for vendor design reviews for SMRs. Utilities have "expressed interest" in either purchasing large SMRs or a series of SMRs, he said, while some operators have been "active in providing advice to vendors and to us". And just recently Canadian Nuclear Laboratories "issued a request for expression of interest in relation to SMRs with the stated intent to host R&D services and a prototype demonstration facility within the next ten years," he said. CNSC has received more than 70 indications of interests from vendors and suppliers.

The key, Leblanc said, is to "do of all this early in the design process" because, for a regulator, advanced reactors present "very different challenges".

"The obvious difference is that they are technologically different - they claim to make benefits and improvements in safety performance, but to do so they introduce a significant number of novelties. Some of these are often common to other industries, but not necessarily to reactors - for example, the extensive use of automation. New coolants, such as molten metal, sodium, gas for molten fuels, are being proposed and in many cases, they are looking at extensive use of passive features and a level of integration of all these innovations results in significant challenges in modelling and demonstrating the safety case, which is really key to us.

"The second area is approaches to deployment because the proposals are in many cases different. For instance, reduced staffing or remotely operated reactors; transportable or relocatable reactor concepts; security by design, meaning unmanned; and different fleets of reactors presenting challenges on licensing. There are construction challenges in terms of the licensing approach for a demonstration reactor. What about reproducibility, meaning using the same technology again and again. And licensed to operate challenges in terms of the management system, the minimum shift complement, increased use of automation, and financial guarantees."

Lack of opex

Historically, the regulatory framework has evolved alongside technologies, and there will necessarily be a shift back to this approach, he said.

"This is not limited to Canada. Early reactor designs were informed by the science and the experience of the day. At that time, at the beginning, more reliance was given to professional judgement. The tools were good, but they were quite elementary. Safety margins were large due to uncertainties in the modelling. And regulations were mostly objective-based. Opex was either not available or quite limited," he said.

"As the next generation of reactors was produced, the regulatory frameworks evolved as opex was acquired. Regulatory requirements became more prescriptive and specific to the technologies. In Canada, we're very good with the Candu, but we have had major challenges with all the other technologies. And for the designers and operators this resulted in more regulatory uncertainty.

"Today, with respect to advanced reactor technologies, we may be back to the past. We are being faced with a situation where opex again is limited. We are then faced with challenges on modelling capability. Now the question is to what extent we need to go back to objective-based rather than prescriptive regulations," he said.

The CNSC plans to produce a report on developing a licence application guide for SMRs in the next few weeks. It is also developing an internal committee to provide senior management leadership to set the foundation for the regulation of advanced modular reactors.

"So, even though we are going to be objective-based, we're going to provide some certainty by publishing a regulatory guide on how to apply for a licence for SMRs. This will be part of our 58 such regulatory documents that cover the whole spectrum of our regulatory activities. This is down from 280 documents a few years ago, so we are really trying to streamline the regulatory process," he said.

Public confidence

The Pickering licensing process, expected in the spring and summer of next year, "promises to be the most controversial in Canada", Leblanc said, not least because of the age of the facility. The plant's eights units were built between 1971 and 1986.

The transparency of the regulator is therefore key, he said.

"Tens of billions of dollars will be spent in Canada in the coming years to modernise and refurbish the existing facilities, but new build projects are currently on the shelf. The Commission, as a quasi-judicial and administrative tribunal and regulatory organisation, has been a very transparent regulator since its creation," he said. "It continues to conduct public hearings and meeting where members of the public, indigenous people, environmental groups, industrial associations, labour unions and academics can participate in the environmental assessment and licensing decisions."

Savage said public confidence and trust are "vital to a sustainable and productive nuclear sector".

This requires three things: a responsible industry with robust internal regulation; a strong and independent regulator; and having an informed public. This is the "triple-lock", he said.

"Openness doesn't necessarily mean transparency. Putting as much information into the public domain as possible can actually make it more opaque and harder to understand. True transparency is not only making things available but also presenting it in a language that is accessible. It's also about answering the public's questions," he said.

"On the matter of the industry or regulator being the advocate - if you're doing building work at home, the recommendation of a friend goes a long way. There's something about advocates and this is very much in ONR’s consciousness because one of our strategic themes is to inspire a climate of stakeholder trust, respect and confidence. So, it's very much in our DNA, in our regulatory focus, and we do have a policy of publicly disclosing information about our activities and we have direct engagements with the public."

FANR introduced a "transparency principle", Viktorsson said, because "we can see there is a lot of curiosity about the benefits and risks of nuclear power, about what FANR is doing in order to protect the public".

It holds meetings for the public and for the industry around the UAE and this practice "will need to continue the closer we get to operation because of the more questions we will probably get", he said. "The government stakeholders are well informed because they are key - they have a lot of influence on the public. And we have a lot of MOUs with many national organisations, including customs, defence, security and environmental agencies, and the health authorities, in order to promote the notion that FANR is there to ensure safety."

Assisting newcomers

Newcomer countries "must realise the importance of having the necessary infrastructure", Ferapantov said, and a key area of this is a robust regulatory safety system. "Practice shows that it is impossible to do this without studying the experience of countries with an existing nuclear infrastructure and regulatory framework," he added.

The IAEA's Regulatory Cooperation Forum is performing essential work, he said, to coordinate efforts to support national regulators as they take their first practical steps towards creating the right conditions for overseeing the safety of a new nuclear power program, he said.

It is crucial, he added, that a regulator with no previous experience of nuclear power plant licensing and the various stages of the nuclear lifecycle "pays special attention" to regulatory authorities in the country supplying the technology on everything from licensing and assessing the safety of a reactor design, to construction and operation.

Rostechnadzor is "fully involved", for example in assisting regulatory authorities in Bangladesh and Belarus, where Rosatom has new-build projects.

Viktorsson stressed how the UAE government had required a "reference plant", meaning a reactor design that had been licensed before by a recognised regulator and which had already been put into operation.

"This has been done with the APR1400," he said, "and we developed a system where we have a secondee in our office who is the link between us and KINS [Korea Institute of Nuclear Safety] and NNSC [Nuclear Safety and Security Commission]."

South Korea's APR1400 advanced PWR design gained design certification by KINS in 2003. Kepco and KHNP then began the process of seeking US regulatory approval for the design in 2013 and the NRC accepted their application in March 2015.

Researched and written
by World Nuclear News