IAEA initiative to accelerate deployment of SMRs

06 July 2022

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has launched a new initiative aimed at accelerating the safe and secure deployment of advanced nuclear reactors, with a particular focus on small modular reactors (SMRs). At a kick-off meeting last month, participants discussed roadmaps for enhancing harmonisation of regulatory activities and the standardisation of industrial approaches.

IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi delivers his opening remarks at the NHSI kick-off meeting (Image: Dean Calma/IAEA)

Speaking at the opening of the first Nuclear Harmonisation Standardisation Initiative (NHSI) meeting - held on 23-24 June in Vienna - IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi said: "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."

The NHSI - announced in March by Grossi - aims to facilitate the safe and secure deployment of SMRs to maximise their contribution to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. At the 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.

Regulatory track

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 regulators' 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. "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."

The IAEA said it may develop a new review mission, which will assess countries' SMR regulatory review processes 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 organisational 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.

Industry track

The goal of the industry track is to develop more standardised 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 materialise under a standardised approach.

The industry track focused on four objectives: harmonisation 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 standardise user specifications and help technology developers to align with the market."

The IAEA noted the challenge with harmonising 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 customisation for SMRs. Furthermore, the NHSI proposed resource sharing among experimental facilities, technology holders and technical support organisations to validate simulation computer codes to model SMRs, which are used to support the design and safety analysis that regulators review to grant licences.

The IAEA said its Milestones Approach, which includes 19 steps in the development of nuclear infrastructure – from nuclear safety and security to human resource development and funding – is being revised 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 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."

Grossi said that both tracks have now "developed ambitious but feasible programmes of work that build on previous activities and that progressively make important steps to help the harmonisation and standardisation of design and construction and harmonisation of regulatory approaches. I strongly believe that the NHSI will be a true game changer".

The IAEA said it will host the next NHSI plenary in 2023 to take stock of progress between now and then. The industry and regulatory tracks will then join up in 2024 under an IAEA framework to further advance the initiative, culminating in roadmaps with concrete action plans.

Sama Bilbao y León, Director General of World Nuclear Association, said: "The number and diversity of attendees at this workshop from both industry and regulatory bodies underlines the importance of harmonising approaches to licensing, to support decarbonisation and energy security objectives.

"The discussions were fruitful and formed a good starting point for increased collaboration. It is imperative that we now utilise this momentum to create concrete actions that can benefit licensing activities in both the short and long-term, while also making a wider set of stakeholders, such a national governments, aware of the importance of these activities and what role they can play."

Researched and written by World Nuclear News