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Learning from Experience to Improve Regulatory Processes

Isabel Villanueva (screen), Head of the Cabinet of the Secretary General in Spain’s Nuclear Safety Council, addresses participants of the IAEA virtual technical meeting on regulatory processes held from 27 to 30 October 2020.

Isabel Villanueva (screen), Head of the Cabinet of the Secretary General in Spain’s Nuclear Safety Council, addresses participants of the IAEA virtual technical meeting on regulatory processes. (Photo: C. Villarreal/IAEA)

While most nuclear regulatory bodies have processes in place to review the efficiency and effectiveness of their activities, regulators are increasingly aware of the room for improvement that exists when using lessons learned from routine operations in a more systematic way. To this end, many are putting in place methods and processes to collect and analyse information about how they conduct their operations and how they implement and share lessons learned from their own experience.

The benefits gained from using regulatory experience effectively and the process of enhancing national regulatory frameworks based on lessons learned were among the key issues that regulators from 27 countries from all over the world discussed at an IAEA virtual technical meeting held from 27 to 30 October.

“Taking advantage of all these learning possibilities is beneficial for further enhancing the effectiveness and efficiency of the regulatory process,” said David Senior from the IAEA’s Division of Nuclear Installation Safety. “Regulators are invited to self-reflect about the effectiveness of their processes: their job is not only to oversee the operation of regulated facilities, but to look at how they themselves are implementing their regulatory activities.” The IAEA stands ready to support regulators in enhancing existing practices to manage regulatory experience by identifying practical measures that might help identify and analyse findings and share lessons learned, he added.

Regulators are responsible for ensuring that operators of facilities using ionizing radiation — such as nuclear power plants or hospitals using ionizing radiation to treat cancer — maintain high standards of safety through compliance with regulations. At the meeting, participants concluded that regulatory bodies need to “look within”. By collecting information on their processes, they can systematically transform it into knowledge, which in turn helps them come up with lessons learned, corrective actions, and the sharing of these actions and lessons to improve regulatory processes, such as enhancing inspection practices and setting new or updating regulatory requirements, with regulators of other countries. This is what is known in the industry as managing regulatory experience.

“Regulators, as well as operators, are very effective in analyzing and drawing lessons learned from  events occurring in facilities involving ionizing radiation. However, when it comes to analyzing their own performance, regulators may not have sufficient effective mechanisms in place,” said Paul Woodhouse, a UK expert and Chair of the technical meeting.

Continuous improvement is a key goal for regulators and there should be no room for complacency in achieving it.
Isabel Villanueva, Head, Cabinet of the Secretary General, Nuclear Safety Council (CSN), Spain.


In early 2020, the IAEA published a technical document providing practical advice to regulators on how to effectively manage their experience in regulating facilities and activities. This document detailed the specific challenges regulatory organizations faced and identified opportunities in existing processes — such as quality and knowledge management — that can contribute to building effective arrangements to ensure that robust safety regulations are in place. The IAEA document also offers formulas and mechanisms to help regulatory bodies in becoming more efficient at their job: regulating.

“Continuous improvement is a key goal for regulators and there should be no room for complacency in achieving it,” said Isabel Villanueva, Head of the Cabinet of the Secretary General in Spain’s Nuclear Safety Council (CSN). “Most regulators routinely examine a wide range of internal and external sources to explore possible improvements in their regulatory framework and processes. It is time to take one step forward and transform this into a systematic practice well integrated with all the other processes of the management system governing the exercise of regulatory functions and organizational practices.”  Efforts to assess gaps and weaknesses to strengthen coordination among national stakeholders contribute to establishing a robust regulatory framework, she added.

The discussions also covered how regulators of countries embarking on a nuclear power programme or considering building other nuclear installations can benefit from exchanging experience with more experienced regulators to address their challenges in building a safety infrastructure.

“The regulatory framework in my country has considerably evolved over time,” said Solomon Getachew, Director General of the Ethiopian Radiation Protection Authority. “In the early days, progress was slow, but managing our own regulatory experience and using the experience of others, for instance through Integrated Regulatory Review Service (IRRS) missions and other IAEA advisory missions, helped us very much to mature and grow fast as a credible regulatory organization.”

There is no one approach that fits all. The tools developed by the IAEA focus on providing practical advice to support countries in deciding whether their regulatory organization has effective mechanisms to draw lessons from its own experience.

For example, when something has gone wrong, the tools help regulators ask themselves: would the error prevent us from achieving the regulatory objective? Does this affect other processes in our regulatory activities? Do the attitudes, values and beliefs held and shared by our staff positively or negatively impact the achievement of the regulatory objective?

Participants highlighted some of the areas in which IAEA support can be particularly useful for regulators, such as  determining practical criteria for screening safety concerns raised by staff, reinforcing existing or establishing new international cooperation mechanisms to facilitate reporting and sharing findings and lessons learned, developing appropriate training activities for staff and fostering good practices.

The IAEA is developing practical mechanisms, such as IAEA-facilitated workshops to guide regulators in setting appropriate mechanisms to manage experience effectively and to train staff in the use of these mechanisms.

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