SMRs may lead the way to nuclear standardisation, says lawyer

26 September 2016

Licensing small modular reactors (SMRs) "presents a new opportunity for standardisation" in the nuclear power industry, Vanessa Jakovich, counsel at Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, told delegates at the World Nuclear Association’s 41st Annual Symposium in London on 16 September.

Jakovich, who chairs the World Nuclear Association's Licensing and Permitting Task Force, said traditional licensing frameworks and standards "pose lots of challenges" in terms of standardisation and cooperation. But, noting that 19 of the current reactor designs being considered by regulators are SMRs, she said, "This seems to be the new world".

"Existing nuclear countries have licensing and certification regimes that have been in place for over half a century and to try and create standardisation in a retrofitted world is very difficult. They present a status quo that forms a significant barrier to international standardisation of licensing requirements for nuclear new build, at anything more than an incremental level," she said.

"Legal frameworks will in some cases need to be updated and new standards will need to be developed, but standardisation is obviously more efficient and it lowers barrier to entry, with more opportunities for knowledge and experience sharing. These benefits are magnified in the world of SMRs."

"It's somewhat difficult to talk about SMRs generally because the designs are different, but there are a number of similarities. They have little radioactive waste inventories and their modular manufacture means less difficulty with siting and financing. Most existing legal frameworks allow for the deployment of SMRs using existing requirements and standards, but these frameworks will be deployed in a new way, and in some cases, require the development of new standards. This provides a real opportunity for standardisation for SMRs."

Seven differences

Jakovich explained the seven differences between SMRs and large-scale reactors.

Their small size means they have a smaller radioactive inventory and responsive site capacity, as well as "smoother financial resource demands".

Factory fabrication allows for a potential separation of construction and operator responsibility and also creates a potential to centralise experience and increase consistency

Their passive safety systems allow for improved accident protection and potentially lower barriers to entry for new, inexperienced operators.

Their siting constraints could be "much lower", she said, because undergrounding potentially reduces seismic and security risks, and there is less cooling water demand.

The potential for remote decommissioning means quicker remediation of sites by removal of plant and more predictable outcomes in terms of safety and cost.

SMRs are "novel", she said, since most designs are still unproven.

The fact they are modular and scalable means they are "agile", she said.

Legal fundamentals

Jakovich then outlined the "legal fundamentals" of licensing.

"The utopia of standardisation would be to have international certification. Ultimately if you could have an internationally certified module, it could be designed and manufactured in a factory, meaning you can deploy it wherever you like provided that the host country is signed up to the certification program. That would be ideal, but it's not realistic in the short or medium term. So where could we make improvements to make sure that we maximise the opportunities?"

The Multinational Design Evaluation Program (MDEP) established by the OECD Nuclear Energy Agency in 2006, considers standardisation of technical standards, Jakovich noted, "but ultimately a country needs to have a regulatory system at the highest level which allows these standardised requirements to be deployed properly. And that's where the legal framework is important."

The 'prime responsibility' principle

One of the biggest legal challenges, she said, is in the relationship between the manufacturer and the operator of an SMR.

"In most areas, licensing processes could apply in exactly same way as to conventional plants, but there are some areas where SMRs could be treated differently. Some differences pose challenges, but some pose opportunities."

She summarised the requirements laid out in the International Atomic Energy Agency's Convention on Nuclear Safety, and considered how a licensing regime which facilitated SMR standardisation could be developed within these overarching principles.

Firstly, the "permission principle", whereby countries must have a system of licensing, prohibit operation without a licence, and ensure inspection, assessment and enforcement, and whereby licensed operators must bear prime responsibility.

Secondly, the "obligation to qualify as a licensable entity", meaning that licensed operators must have policies prioritising safety and must have sufficient financial and human resources to ensure safety.

Thirdly, the requirement to have "a licensing application process with project gateways", with comprehensive safety assessments before construction, commissioning, and through the project's life, as well as siting and consultation processes.

Fourthly, there must be a system with "substantive project requirements", with construction and technology that includes defence-in-depth, is proven or is qualified by testing, and is reliable and stable. In addition, the technology must accord with a safety case, use established procedures, constantly improve, and minimise waste.

She said that nothing in these requirements prevents a licensing regime from incorporating the use of international standards, and in fact, SMRs pose opportunities to increase consistency with these requirements.

However, Jakovich highlighted two articles which pose particular challenges for SMRs: Article 9 – which requires that licensed operators must bear prime responsibility; and Article 18 – requiring operation using established procedures and a design that is be proven or qualified by testing. Her view was that governments should seek to develop legal frameworks arounds SMR licensing in a way that seeks to overcome these challenges, particularly to capture the benefits of factory manufacture of standardised designs.

Licensing phases

In line with the IAEA requirements, all existing nuclear countries have developed their own licensing processes with different phases and hold-points, Jakovich noted.

"Governments interested in SMR deployment, whether as an exporting or importing country, need to look at the licensing regime. At which point do you need to seek licensing? Every country does this differently. What would need to change to allow a standardised SMR program? The most important aspects are about siting and reactor design approval," Jakovich told delegates.

"The stages which are important facilitate international standardisation are around, when you get the actual reactor design licensed and when you have to get siting approval for construction. Traditional programs don't necessarily allow for this to be separated unless you have a reactor design phase.If countries have this, whether it's statutory or non-statutory, you're actually creating an environment where it's a lot easier and allows people to cooperate to try and achieve standardisation."

"It's not a difficult thing to do: the UK introduced a generic design assessment processes in the space of about two years without even having to pass an Act of Parliament. It doesn't have statutory force, but it provides an opportunity to assess the design of a reactor in isolation. This creates an environment where aligned technical standards would work well, because different regulators would be assessing the design at the same stage, before the need for site-specific variations."

Researched and written
by World Nuclear News