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New IAEA Self-Assessment Methodology and Enhancing SMR Licensing Discussed at Regulatory Cooperation Forum

Participants at the eighth annual Regulatory Cooperation Forum meeting held on the side-lines of the IAEA 61st General Conference. ( Photo: F. Nassif/IAEA)

A new IAEA safety culture self-assessment methodology for regulators and a pilot project on the licensing of small modular reactors (SMRs) were highlighted at the eighth IAEA Regulatory Cooperation Forum (RCF), held today on the margins of the IAEA 61st General Conference.

Safety culture self-assessment

The new safety culture self-assessment methodology, based on IAEA safety standards, provides an opportunity to regulators to evaluate potential weaknesses in the underlying safety culture in their organizations, as a first step to addressing them. The new methodology should enable them to ultimately strengthen safety at nuclear installations and for safety and licensing reviews. It is based on a similar IAEA methodology used by nuclear facility operators.

“A strong culture and effective leadership for safety are crucial for nuclear and radiation safety,” said Juan Carlos Lentijo, Deputy Director General and Head of the IAEA Department of Nuclear Safety and Security. “We offer this new self-assessment methodology to support the development of safety culture.”

During a presentation on this subject, various mechanisms to improve safety culture assessment were addressed. “Collection of data through surveys questionnaires, interviews, document reviews and focus groups forms an initial phase of the assessment process,” explained Gabriel Soare, a nuclear safety officer at the IAEA. The most important, however, is the analysis of the data collected.

The methodology will also support regulators identify the strengths and weaknesses of their own safety culture he added.

Pioneers in SMR licencing

With four SMRs in three countries already under construction and many others in the planning phase, regulators want to make sure that their licensing processes enable the eventual timely and well-informed licensing of this new technology, said Stewart Magruder, a senior nuclear safety officer at the IAEA.

SMRs, with an output of less than 300 MW, will have shorter construction times and are expected to be cost-competitive to build. “Though smaller, the safety and security measures for this next generation of nuclear power reactors can be no less stringent from the obligations that present-day reactors are subject to,” said Magruder.

The IAEA recently supported a pilot project to identify, understand and address key regulatory issues specific to SMRs.

The regulators that participated in the pilot project discussed the importance of having safety mechanisms that have a number of consecutive and independent levels of protection for SMRs. A number of SMR designers have proposed alternate ways to address these issues in their designs.

The pilot project provided an opportunity to discuss, among other things, the use of a graded approach to regulation in response to vendors’ proposals to customize regulatory requirements, Magruder said.

The participants also exchanged information on practices and strategies with regard to the emergency planning zones for SMRs. Based on the unique characteristics of SMRs, such as their inherent safety features and the slower progression of accidents, smaller zones are being proposed by SMR vendors. Existing strategies and practices are being assessed by the SMR Regulatory Forum members to develop a common approach on the issue.

“The IAEA intends to continue working closely with regulators on approaches to safety and licensing ahead of potential SMR deployment worldwide,” Magruder said. This will include an emphasis on safety culture that needs to permeate SMR licensing as well, and the new IAEA safety culture assessment methodology will be essential in that respect, he added.

What is the RCF?

The Regulatory Cooperation Forum (RCF) is a member-driven forum of nuclear power regulators that promotes the sharing of regulatory knowledge and experience through international cooperation and collaboration using the IAEA Safety Standards as its basis.

The Forum involves countries with advanced nuclear power programmes, those embarking on nuclear power for the first time and countries with smaller programmes considering expansion. The Forum currently consists of 29 members including the IAEA, the European Commission and the Nuclear Energy Agency of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

The IAEA supports the Forum by offering administrative, technical and conference services support. Member States, who wish to receive regulatory support from the Forum to strengthen their nuclear safety, are asked to provide a detailed analysis of their safety needs, deficiencies and the type of assistance they currently receive. The Forum uses this information to prepare an action plan designed specifically for each Member State.

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