Nuclear regulation is unique: a Canadian perspective

30 March 2017

The international nuclear regulatory community is unique among the world's regulatory communities. Through adherence to international conventions and standards, participation in international organisations, peer reviews and benchmarking activities, and continuous lessons learned from best practices, the international nuclear regulatory community is committed to collaboration and transparency in the interests of safety and security, writes Jason Cameron.

A key element in safeguarding the safety and security of the global nuclear industry is the presence in each nuclear country of a regulatory body that is free from undue influence and interference, and is able to make decisions or recommendations based on the best available scientific and technical information. National and international organisations agree that the fundamental objective of all nuclear safety regulatory bodies - the regulator's prime purpose - is to ensure that nuclear licensees conduct their activities and operate their facilities in a safe manner at all times.

"To prevent another nuclear accident, and to help protect people and the environment both at home and around the world, the global nuclear regulatory community is committed to collaborating through peer reviews and sharing of best practices. The CNSC supports these approaches and advocates for strong nuclear regulation in all existing and emerging nuclear countries."

In Canada, nuclear regulation is a federal responsibility, in recognition of the national significance of nuclear energy and materials, and is overseen by the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC), Canada's independent nuclear regulator. Unlike many other energy-related sectors in Canada in which decisions are a provincial or federal government responsibility, the environmental assessment and licensing decision-making authority for all nuclear facilities and activities rests with the CNSC. The CNSC has integrated and streamlined its approach to the environmental assessment and regulatory decision-making process to align with international standards and best practices in nuclear regulation.

The CNSC is a holistic lifecycle regulator, with responsibility from before an application is received through to decommissioning and remediation to the management of long-lived waste, and, together with its predecessor, the Atomic Energy Control Board, has regulated Canada's nuclear industry for over 70 years.

International nuclear safety

The use of nuclear energy and materials can have international consequences; an accident anywhere is really an accident everywhere, as the world has witnessed following the Chernobyl and Fukushima nuclear accidents.

For this very reason, the global nuclear community is bound together through international organisations, conventions and standards to promote the peaceful use of nuclear energy and support one another in that pursuit. Canada has a long and distinguished history of international collaboration in the interests of health, safety and security around the world. The CNSC is mandated to regulate the use of nuclear energy and materials to protect health, safety, security and the environment. It is also responsible for implementing Canada's international commitments on the peaceful use of nuclear energy and dissemination of objective scientific, technical and regulatory information to the public.

At the top of the hierarchy of international instruments sits the Convention on Nuclear Safety (CNS), an international treaty governing the safety rules at civilian nuclear power plants. Canada was one of the first signatories to the CNS, which came into force in October 1996, and the CNSC has coordinated Canada's participation at the six review meetings of the CNS held thus far.

The CNSC's efforts at the CNS have been well received and were formally recognised in October 2015 with the unanimous election of the CNSC's Executive Vice-President and Chief Regulatory Officer, Ramzi Jammal, as President of the Seventh Review Meeting of the CNS, held in Vienna from March 27 to April 7, 2017 at the headquarters of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Mr Jammal's primary objective leading up to this Seventh Review Meeting was to promote the values of increased participation and transparency in the peer review process. These efforts will inevitably advance global nuclear safety and demonstrate to the international community the commitment of Canada (CNSC) and other Contracting Parties to worldwide nuclear safety.

Another key international instrument is the Joint Convention on the Safety of Spent Fuel Management and the Safety of Radioactive Waste Management (Joint Convention), which is a legally binding treaty that aims for a high level of safety worldwide in the management of used fuel and radioactive waste. The Joint Convention sets international best practices. Every three years, Canada engages in the peer review process, which enables Contracting Parties to both assess their spent fuel and radioactive waste management regimes, and to learn from other countries' best practices and lessons learned. Canada was one of the first signatories to the Joint Convention (1998), which came into force in 2001. The CNSC has coordinated Canada's participation at the five review meetings held thus far.

The CNS and Joint Convention are treaties of the IAEA, an independent body of the United Nations established in 1957 to promote the peaceful use of nuclear energy and technology by serving as a forum for scientific and technical cooperation. In reporting to both the United Nations General Assembly and the Security Council, the IAEA serves as the nuclear industry's international watchdog. The IAEA is responsible for establishing international standards for nuclear nations. The importance of the independence of nuclear regulatory bodies is set out in the IAEA's standard "Governmental, Legal and Regulatory Framework for Safety" (General Safety Requirements No. GSR Part 1 [Rev. 1]), which requires governments to "ensure that the regulatory body is effectively independent in its safety related decision making and that it has functional separation from entities having responsibilities or interests that could unduly influence its decision making."

A fundamental service offered by the IAEA to Member States, and one unique among international regulatory communities, is peer review missions to ensure that nuclear regulators' and operators' processes and practices are in line with international standards, guides and best practices. These missions are conducted by experts from other Member States. This practice is unique to the nuclear sector and does not occur in other energy sectors. In support of this approach, Canada has submitted its regulatory framework and operational practices to peer reviews, using international benchmarks for good management practices. For example, the CNSC hosted an Integrated Regulatory Review Service (IRRS) mission in 2009 and a follow-up mission in 2011, designed to strengthen and enhance the effectiveness of national regulatory infrastructure for radiation, radioactive waste and transport safety, among other areas of review.

One of the findings of the mission and follow-up was that the CNSC is an effective and independent regulatory body. The CNSC also welcomed an International Physical Protection Advisory Service (IPPAS) mission in 2015, which is designed to strengthen nuclear security by reviewing national nuclear security practices. Again, the CNSC was found to have appropriate security practices in place. The CNSC is fully supportive of these missions as a means to enhance independence and transparency, and insists that participating Member States make the results of the review public. The CNSC has led and participated in numerous peer review missions in recent years.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development's Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA), an intergovernmental agency that facilitates cooperation among countries with advanced nuclear technology infrastructures to seek excellence in nuclear safety, technology, science, environment and law, also stresses the importance of regulatory cooperation and independence. The NEA identifies the following principles for an effective nuclear regulator in its "Characteristics of an Effective Nuclear Regulator": safety focus and safety culture; independence; competence; and openness and transparency. It also identifies several attributes that are required from nuclear regulators: clear and consistent regulation; consistent and balanced decision making; accountability; strong organisational capability; continuous improvement, peer review and international involvement; efficiency; and credibility, trust and respect.

To prevent another nuclear accident, and to help protect people and the environment both at home and around the world, the global nuclear regulatory community is committed to collaborating through peer reviews and sharing of best practices. The CNSC supports these approaches and advocates for strong nuclear regulation in all existing and emerging nuclear countries.

To help improve the regulation of nuclear safety around the world, the CNSC, with its unique expertise and experience, focuses its collaboration efforts with other nuclear regulators on areas where it can have the most significant impact and that align with Canadian interests, such as openness and transparency in regulatory processes.

Jason Cameron

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Jason Cameron is vice president and chief communications officer at the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission.

The article is co-authored by Sophie Leduc, senior international relations officer, and Lee Brunarski, senior policy officer, in the Regulatory Affairs Branch of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission.

Filed under: Regulation, Canada