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Safety of SMRs Highlighted at General Conference


The latest IAEA safety related activities on novel advanced reactors, including Small Modular Reactors (SMR), were presented at a side event during the 65th IAEA General Conference. (Photo: A. Tarhi/IAEA)

There is an increased interest among countries in the development and deployment of innovative nuclear technologies to meet future energy demand. How the IAEA can help national authorities adapt and develop standards for these emerging technologies was among the key topics discussed at the side event, Licensing Novel Advanced Reactors: Addressing the Challenges, held on the sidelines of the 65th IAEA General Conference today.

Advanced reactors have been in development for several years, and several small modular reactors (SMRs) are under licensing review by national authorities, while many other designs, including for high temperature gas cooled reactors, lead fast reactors, sodium fast reactors, molten salt reactors and micro reactors, are at the design safety review stage.

SMRs produce electricity of up to 300 MW(e) per module and can be pre-fabricated in a factory and assembled on site, significantly decreasing the time it takes to deploy a reactor. They can easily complement renewable energy sources and can be deployed in areas outside the reach of national grids. During the event, participants discussed their experience in evaluating SMR designs and provided insights on lessons learned through their experience with evaluating SMR safety.

“Coordinated activities of the regulators and industry, including design, research and development institutions, is essential in developing and enhancing the regulatory framework for novel technologies,” said Irina Sokolova, Head of International Relations at Rostechnadzor, Russia’s nuclear regulator. Only in a coordinated manner can regulation facilitate the safe use of novel technologies, she added.

As the concepts and designs of innovative technologies, including SMRs, are technologically diverse, the IAEA is working on the establishment of a technology-neutral framework for safety to help harmonize international approaches on the basis of existing IAEA safety standards.

“Regulatory authorities assessing the design of advanced reactors are facing the need to review the applicability of their regulations, develop new guidance and build new technical capability. There is an opportunity to enhance harmonisation, leverage knowledge and resources by increasing international cooperation on the safety of these technologies,” said Paula Calle Vives, Chair of the SMR Safety Working Group, which has consulted with over 150 experts worldwide.  

SMRs and innovative technologies can be very different from the current operating fleet. For example, innovative reactors can use different fuels and coolants.

“These technologies have generated interest in the international community due to their sustainability, efficiency and cost, and safety reviews need to be swift and thorough,” said Anna Bradford, Director of the Division of Nuclear Installation Safety. “The IAEA has developed case studies to demonstrate how the design requirements for conventional power plants can be used to license the two most common SMR technologies: water cooled and high temperature gas cooled reactors.”

The SMR Safety Working Group has completed the review of over 60 safety standards to guide their application to a range of SMRs and innovative technologies lifecycle and will publish a safety report next year.

“There is tremendous alignment between the challenges we face as regulators and the areas that have been targeted in the IAEA proposals,” said Alun Griffith, Head of Novel Advanced Technologies at the Office of Nuclear Regulation in the UK. 

Participants at the meeting discussed the issues faced in the application of IAEA safety standards given the differences in the design, siting, construction, commissioning, operation, decommissioning, radioactive waste management, safety assessment and regulation of innovative technologies compared to operating reactors. “At present, most of the operating nuclear power plants in China are pressurized water reactors (PWR). As a result, the nuclear safety regulations and standards are principally issued for PWRs, and some are not applicable or adequate for the regulation of advanced reactors,” said Jinkun Wu, Deputy Director at the National Nuclear Safety Administration in China.

Reflecting on how to address key challenges presented by novel advanced reactors, Robert Taylor, Deputy Director of the Office of Nuclear Reactor Regulation at the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, said, “The key to overcoming any of the challenges we are going to face resides in ensuring that we have the right regulatory framework, the right safety focus in our licensing activities and a big picture thinking about how these technologies can be deployed internationally.”

IAEA representatives at the meeting presented a Programme of Work to develop further the necessary guidance and disseminate knowledge on the safety of these technologies with support from the international community.

“The IAEA will continue to facilitate regulatory cooperation on design assessment,” said Bradford. “And we will continue to ensure that necessary guidance and support for a safe transition to these advanced and innovative technologies is prioritized. The IAEA has launched a new Technical Safety Review for conceptual designs for novel advanced reactors, and together with the development of Specific Guidelines, the IAEA will continue to work to increase regulatory cooperation to enhance safety of novel advanced reactors and to help increasing international harmonisation.”

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