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Safeguards by Design: Designing Nuclear Facilities with Safeguards in Mind

Jeremy Whitlock

An IAEA nuclear safeguards inspector checks a surveillance camera, which is one type of measure considered during the design or modification of nuclear facilities. (Photo: IAEA)

As the latest innovations and technologies continue to present new possibilities, experience has shown that it is most effective to design nuclear facilities with safeguards in mind from the start. A concept known as safeguards by design (SBD) considers safeguards requirements during the planning phase — prior to embarking on the construction or modification of a nuclear facility.

“Acknowledging safeguards early in the design and construction process facilitates dialogue among stakeholders on how the facility will operate and the applicable safeguards measures,” said Traci Newton, Senior Safeguards Analyst at the IAEA. The aim of SBD is to facilitate the development of verification methods that will minimize the impact on the operator, without reducing the effectiveness of safeguards activities and IAEA access to the facilities for verification purposes. “SBD improves the efficiency of safeguards by helping the IAEA to optimize their application,” Newton said. By planning for expected verification activities, facilities can be designed to minimize inspectors’ potential exposure to radiation, enhance access to safeguards equipment for maintenance, ensure capabilities for on-site remote data transmission and mitigate the impact of events that may disrupt the facility’s normal operation.

For example, when designing a spent nuclear fuel storage facility, it is important to consider the application of IAEA seals, so that safeguards activities can be carried out with minimal disruption to the operations of the inspected facility for years to come. Furthermore, early planning can incorporate flexibility into the facility’s infrastructure in order to support future technology innovations that may benefit both the operator and the IAEA in implementing safeguards.

SBD requires facility designers to have a detailed understanding of safeguards requirements. Therefore, one of the key goals of the IAEA in implementing SBD is to raise awareness about such requirements among nuclear regulators and the research and development community.

SBD for future reactors

The IAEA has published a seven-part guidance series that reflects the application of SBD to all aspects of the nuclear fuel cycle, from initial planning and design through construction, operation, spent fuel management and decommissioning. The series provides advice for decision makers, designers, equipment providers and prospective purchasers, while also considering the economic, operational, safety and security factors related to designing a nuclear facility.

One emerging opportunity to apply SBD is in small modular reactors (SMRs), which present novel reactor designs, fuel processes and supply arrangements. SMRs offer significant potential for nuclear energy expansion thanks to their shorter construction timelines, greater adaptability and inherent safety features. Safeguards provisions are being considered throughout the development of these new reactors, thereby avoiding the need to make incremental changes once construction has already been completed.

“All nuclear reactors in a State under a comprehensive safeguards agreement with the IAEA need to be safeguarded — regardless of the size or technology — including SMRs,” Newton said. “By working with the IAEA at an early stage in reactor design, safeguards considerations can be embedded into the design and planning of these reactors, so that nuclear verification can be performed in the most effective and efficient way with minimal burden to the operator.”

The IAEA is engaged in SBD discussions through its Member State Support Programme (MSSP). The MSSP allows for an open exchange of design information between interested countries, reactor designers and the IAEA. The IAEA also engages other stakeholders through the SMR Regulators’ Forum, which brings together nuclear safety and security experts to discuss challenges and share experiences related to the regulation of SMRs.

SMRs are under construction or planned in a number of countries, with many more expressing interest. In response to requests to address challenges and to facilitate the timely deployment of SMRs, the IAEA Platform on SMRs and their Applications was established in 2021. The Platform is a one-stop shop for the IAEA’s full array of support and expertise on SMRs, from technology development and deployment to nuclear safety, security and safeguards.

“The IAEA’s SBD activities will ensure that the Agency is ready to implement effective and efficient safeguards in newly built or upgraded facilities, and in particular in SMRs,” Newton said.

October, 2022
Vol. 63-3

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