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Safeguarding the Nuclear Future: Small Modular Reactors


An IAEA safeguards inspector installing a surveillance camera at a nuclear facility. (Photo: D. Calma/ IAEA)

Small modular reactors (SMRs) offer significant potential for nuclear energy – thanks to their shorter construction timeline, greater adaptability and inherent safety features. Similar to all nuclear facilities and locations outside facilities subject to nuclear verification by the IAEA, the Agency will be required to verify that the nuclear material in SMRs remains in peaceful use.

At a side event to this year’s IAEA General Conference, participants gained an insight into how safeguards considerations apply to SMRs. They discussed how those considerations can be integrated into the SMR design process and the importance of working with the IAEA at an early stage to ensure that a country’s international safeguards obligations can be met as effectively and efficiently as possible.

IAEA safeguards are a series of technical measures, implemented in accordance with safeguards agreements concluded between countries and the IAEA, to verify that nuclear material and technology remain in peaceful use. This means that the IAEA needs to keep abreast of the latest developments in the nuclear field by working with stakeholders.

"All nuclear reactors in a country with a comprehensive safeguards agreement need to be safeguarded – regardless of the size or technology. This includes SMRs," said Jeremy Whitlock, Head of the Concepts and Approaches Section at the IAEA Department of Safeguards, and the presenter at the side event. “There are challenges associated with performing nuclear verification at SMRs, including the use of new nuclear fuels and spent fuel management considerations. However, by working with the IAEA at an early stage in reactor design, safeguards considerations can be embedded into the design of these reactors, so that nuclear verification can be performed in the most effective and efficient way with minimal burden on the operator.”

To support governments and the nuclear industry in reactor design and other fields of nuclear technology development, the IAEA has produced the Safeguards by Design (SBD) guidance series.

“Safeguards by design is a voluntary process that provides an opportunity for early discussion between the IAEA and national authorities,” said Whitlock. “It facilitates the implementation of safeguards throughout all the life cycle stages of the facility, can help to reduce costs, avoid retrofits and promotes efficiency during safeguards inspections.”

Nonetheless, implementing SBD comes with challenges, such as the IAEA’s lack of direct communication channels with facility designers, as well as gaps in the understanding of international safeguards requirements among designers and vendors. One of the key goals for SBD is, therefore, raising awareness among nuclear regulators, the research and development community, and SMR developers alike.

Find out more about SMRs on the IAEA website, or watch the recording of the event.

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