Speech: Regulatory harmonisation for SMRs 

12 February 2020

Regulators must explore the possibility of harmonising international requirements for advanced and small modular reactor design evaluation and licensing, Rumina Velshi, president and CEO of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC), told delegates at the Advanced Reactors Summit VII held in Knoxville, Tennessee yesterday. In August last year, Velshi and US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) Chairman Christine Svinicki signed a Memorandum of Cooperation to expand the agencies' cooperation on activities associated with advanced reactor and SMR technologies.

Rumina Velshi (Image: CNSC)

"Interest and momentum in SMRs is growing quickly. It will be of no surprise to anyone in this room that SMRs are being considered as an important part of the fight against climate change while at the same time providing reliable electricity to many around the world, especially to those who regularly go without. The Canadian nuclear industry and governments across our country see many potential applications in Canada for SMRs and collaboratively developed the 2018 SMR roadmap.

Building off of the work and collaboration that went into developing this SMR roadmap, the premiers of three Canadian provinces signed an agreement in December 2019 to cooperate to advance the development and deployment of SMRs.

These provinces see SMRs as innovative, versatile and scalable, with an ability to generate clean and low-cost energy, connect remote and rural areas, benefit energy-intensive industries, and drive economic growth and export opportunities. They intend to have a strategic plan for SMR deployment ready by fall 2020. The momentum for SMR deployment in Canada is building rapidly.

We, the regulator, received in March 2019 our very first licence application for a 15 megawatt thermal SMR proposed for construction on the site of Canada's nuclear research campus, the Chalk River Laboratories. The environmental assessment is currently under way.

These developments are putting my organisation front-and-centre. As Canada's only nuclear regulator, the CNSC will regulate all SMR and advanced reactor projects in Canada.

These are new technologies and, as with many new technologies, some people are concerned or even fearful over their proposed introduction. We recognise that, and concerns over the unknown are perfectly understandable. But we must be clear that our job, as a science-based regulator, is to protect people and the environment from risk - not from progress.

So what are we doing to make sure we stay true to our commitment to safety above all, while also being in a state of readiness for regulating SMRs?

The first thing we are doing is to make sure we have access to the right people with the right skills to be ready to regulate whatever comes our way. This is especially challenging given the CNSC's demographics. In the past few years, we implemented an aggressive staff renewal initiative to ensure we attracted new talent and transferred the valuable knowledge and experience of our veteran staff to the next generation.

These employees will be key in facilitating our transition between regulatory processes and systems we have used, some for many years, and continue to use, and new processes and systems we are and will be implementing in the years ahead.

The second critical element for us is our flexible regulatory framework. Our framework sets out technology-neutral expectations that are drawn from decades of experience and are based on globally recognised fundamental safety objectives. We regulate in a risk-informed manner and allow applicants to use alternative methods to meet our requirements and safety objectives as long as the safety case can be demonstrated.
We are not prescriptive in our requirements. In fact, an International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Integrated Regulatory Review Service Mission to Canada in September 2019 found our extensive guidance and processes for potential SMR applicants to be a good practice, one to be emulated by other nuclear regulators.

Thirdly, we have offered a vendor design review (VDR) service for the last several years that provides vendors a pre-licensing check-in with the CNSC to identify potential fundamental barriers to licensing in Canada. It also provides important learning opportunities for both the vendor and our staff. I am pleased to report that presently we have 12 SMR vendors at various phases of our VDR process.

The fourth thing we are doing is working to strengthen public trust. Recent polling found that 86% of Canadians are open to or supportive of the use of SMRs as an alternative to fossil fuels to provide reliable, low-carbon power and heat.

We have recently commissioned our own public opinion research on Canadians' levels of trust and confidence in us as the regulator. We are awaiting the results, which will help us identify areas we need to improve in our communications and engagement with Indigenous peoples and the public to clarify or reinforce with them our unceasing commitment to safety at all times.

SMRs will be first-of-a-kind projects and the public will rightfully expect and demand that they be safe. Any mis-step on the part of industry or by us, as the regulator, will likely cause public support to quickly evaporate.
And that brings me to my second point - working together in the interests of safety and with an eye to harmonisation.

We do great work at the CNSC, but we know we do not have all the answers or unlimited resources. That is why we strongly advocate for broad international collaboration in nuclear safety, and have done so for many years.

For example, we participate in the IAEA's SMR Regulators Forum and working groups such as the working group on the regulation of new reactors under the Nuclear Energy Agency.

We took an important step with the US NRC in August 2019 by signing a Memorandum of Cooperation to further streamline and improve the regulation of SMRs, which reflects the very strong alignment between our two agencies.

We have already made great progress under this arrangement, including defining a terms of reference and establishing an Advanced Reactors and Small Modular Reactors Sub-Committee to manage our work. That sub-committee has identified three initial priority projects, including the sharing of regulatory insights from technical reviews of designs, starting with NuScale and Terrestrial Energy. It will also be looking at developing common guidance for reviewing new build licence applications.

I applaud Chairman Svinicki for her leadership in this joint endeavor.

I know this close cooperation and collaboration will serve us well, as reviews of technologies by one of us can be used by the other. If two mature regulators conclude they have no reservations with a design during a pre-licensing review, there should be minimal impediments during the licensing process.

And, if we, the US NRC and the CNSC, are able to demonstrate that this approach works well, is it too bold to consider the possibility of eventually harmonising our requirements globally, as is done in some other industries - such as the civil aviation industry - or closer to home, nuclear substances transport regulations and multilateral licensing and certification of transportation packages.

Harmonisation is an idea that some of my colleagues in the nuclear regulatory community might be skeptical of, particularly concerns over the erosion of regulatory sovereignty.

I believe we risk doing ourselves, the public and the industry a great disservice if we refuse to seriously consider, at a minimum, sharing our analyses, testing, modelling and research to the greatest extent possible. 
Working more closely together could save time, reduce the duplication of effort and lead to better, quicker and more informed decisions without compromising safety. And it could aid our efforts to help embarking nuclear countries do so in a responsible and effective way. All of which can only help reinforce and increase the safety of the facilities we regulate.

I was very pleased to hear from Director General William Magwood last year that the OECD Nuclear Energy Agency has agreed to look at different models for greater regulatory cooperation on SMRs.

In the same vein, the CANDU Owners Group (COG) and World Nuclear Association (WNA) conducted a survey in November 2019 of regulators, government, operators, technology developers, industry associations, etc, to get their perspectives on international harmonisation of regulations for SMRs and Advanced Reactors.
I understand that WNA and COG are expected to prepare a White Paper on how the goal of a worldwide nuclear regulatory environment, where internationally accepted standardised reactor designs can be widely deployed without major design changes at the national level, can be achieved. I very much look forward to this White Paper.

I think the time is now to think boldly and look critically at regulatory frameworks and be open to the need to re-engineer them. It may be time for a paradigm shift in the regulatory space.

Not having these discussions will leave us ill-prepared for the demands that will be placed on us and run the risk of limiting the advancement of technologies that many are counting on to play a role toward a cleaner future. Working together will give us the best chance to successfully navigate this innovative future safely and effectively."