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IAEA Director General's Statement to the Nuclear Harmonization and Standardization Initiative's Plenary Meeting

Vienna, Austria

Rafael Mariano Grossi, IAEA Director General, delivers his remarks at the opening of the Nuclear Harmonization Standardization Initiative (NHSI) plenary meeting at the Agency headquarters in Vienna, Austria. (Photo: D. Calma/IAEA)

Ladies and gentlemen, colleagues,

Welcome to the IAEA Nuclear Harmonization and Standardization Initiative’s plenary meeting. Today we take stock of our efforts and progress in this first year and lay out our priorities for the year to come. 

I’m here with you because I’m absolutely determined to bring NHSI to a successful outcome, or set of outcomes. That is why I am personally involved today and on many other days when I follow up with the leaders of this key initiative.

Before we look at where we have come and what there is still to do, let us remind ourselves why we are here, why NHSI matters.

We are meeting at a time of great potential for the nuclear sector. Across all continents, policy makers and the public are turning to nuclear energy to mitigate climate change, ensure energy security and deliver a just, reliable, affordable and timely transition to net zero. We must step up as international organizations, regulators, policy makers and industry.

Nuclear energy faces opportunities and headwinds, including a reputation of unfulfilled promises. Getting it right will require a concerted, global effort.

The nuclear sector is not only growing, it’s also changing – it is becoming much more global.

I think the benefits of harmonizing regulatory environments and standardizing industrial approaches are clear to everyone here today. But they are worth repeating.

  1. Harmonization of the regulatory process reduces uncertainty.
  2. It helps to lower the cost of building and deploying SMRs.
  3. Harmonization of approaches facilitates international trade of SMRs and components as developers design and manufacture reactors that comply with a more uniform set of global standards rather than having to deal with multiple, sometimes conflicting, sets of requirements in different countries.
  4. Harmonization ensures SMRs across the world meet the highest safety and security standards, reducing the risk of accidents and the consequences of malicious acts, whether those reactors are deployed in Sweden or Ghana. This is particularly important given that they may be deployed in remote areas.
  5. Harmonized approaches help newcomer countries and those countries with less experience, fewer resources and a smaller pool of the necessary talent. It allows them more easily to collaborate with others and implement the highest standards of safety and security.  
  6. Harmonized approaches and requirements could also help streamline research and development efforts across different countries, promoting collaboration and knowledge-sharing and avoiding unnecessary duplication of efforts.
  7. In this hyper-connected world, consistent and sensible regulatory approaches developed with the consistent and honest engagement of all stakeholders could help foster public trust and acceptance of SMRs essential for their deployment.
  8. And when it comes to the design of SMRs, working towards global standardization of approaches – by developing international generic user requirements, for example – could increase trade and create economies of scale for manufacturing, construction and operation.
  9. Standardization would allow for mass production of components and reduce the need for custom engineering. This could strengthen the supply chain and also help to reduce regulatory costs associated with licensing and approval of new designs.

With higher interest rates to deal with and inflation pushing up the cost of steel, copper wire and just about everything else that goes into building an SMR, we know that even the most promising projects are having to tell their investors and buyers that prices have risen substantially. Avoiding, or at least mitigating, cost rises and delays is now even more crucial. 

NHSI is the first truly global effort with wide international backing, facilitated by the IAEA, the international organization at the centre of the global nuclear sector with decades of experience as the hub for safety and regulatory issues. It brings together key stakeholders, including regulators and industry, to talk to each other and provide feedback on each other’s efforts.

We are at a key moment in the development of the sector. Embarking countries are developing nuclear infrastructure, including their regulatory frameworks and licensing processes. Experienced countries are adjusting their regulatory frameworks to account for new technologies, including the development of pre-licensing processes. More harmonized regulatory approaches will allow them to collaborate with other countries more easily and implement high standards of safety and security. The IAEA has decades of experience working with its Member States in this area through our Milestones Approach. We develop the safety standards and security guidance relied on by countries around the world, and we are the place countries come to find out more about SMRs. That’s particularly true when we talk about developing countries.

NHSI is the place to be because it brings together everyone under a truly international roof, housing decades’ worth of experience and knowledge.

We have gathered all the relevant stakeholders into two tracks: the regulatory track and the industry track. Each of these tracks is subdivided. The regulators have three working groups covering different matters:

  1. Building a framework for sharing information
  2. Multinational pre-licensing regulatory design review
  3. Process for leveraging other regulatory reviews and working together during ongoing regulatory reviews

The industry track has four topical sections:

  1. Harmonization of high-level user requirements
  2. Common approaches on Codes & Standards
  3. Experimental testing and validation for design and safety analysis computer codes
  4. Accelerating implementation of infrastructure for SMRs

Though the regulatory track and the industry track work separately, they are not siloed. One of the uniquely powerful parts of the NHSI process is that the tracks assess and comment on each other’s progress through special interface opportunities. 

Another key unique feature is that NHSI brings together countries with highly developed regulatory infrastructure and those still building theirs. This benefits everyone. It allows countries with less-established regulatory systems to benefit from the knowledge and experience of countries with more mature systems, while opening the way for safe and secure marketplaces for SMRs, where this much-needed technology can do the greatest amount of good with the lowest amount of risk.

Now, let us look at some of the key efforts, challenges and achievements of NHSI this past year.

In this first year, the regulatory track has held 16 meetings. Some 29 Member States and the NEA have taken part. More than ten industry representatives and WNA are involved in the interface process.

Participating members (of working group 2) initially held different views on what a multinational pre-licensing regulatory design review should look like and how it should facilitate national reviews. Some members questioned whether these issues were better dealt with bilaterally. But significant progress was made, especially in face-to-face meetings. The group agreed on a proposed process in which the IAEA will serve as a centralized international organization that helps facilitate the review efforts and serves as a repository for the information. The group also decided the IAEA standards would serve as the primary reference framework for a multinational pre-licensing review. Reactor designers and participating regulators would have the option to request consideration of additional national or regional standards. Initial draft publications for the three working groups have been developed and have gone through one round of reviews by Member States, ready for further work and feedback.

The industry track also hosted 16 meetings and six interface meetings. This track has more than 75 participants from 13 Member States, representing multiple parts of the sector, including technology developers, national laboratories and owner-operators. Six international organizations joined their efforts.

On this track, there were no major disagreements, but some participants were generally wary of sharing information and questioned whether NHSI’s efforts would come in time to facilitate deployment.

Progress was made in determining the scope of work, information exchange and a network for global cooperation. Potential solutions to key issues were discussed, like the establishment of an international database allowing the comparison of different codes and standards and a platform and workshops for experiments and code validation.

Both tracks witnessed the power of true engagement and in-person meetings to make progress. The other side of that coin is the clarity that highlighted an area where improvement is still needed. In fact, I would venture to say that the two biggest levers we can pull to ensure the success of the entire effort are showing up fully engaged and getting the relevant stakeholders back home on board.

This is partially linked to another challenge, which is that of resources, both of participants and of the IAEA. Here I am talking of human resources and of financial resources.

It’s clear that in the coming year, NHSI’s success will be directly linked to the level of priority it is given by its participants. I urge you to consider this. The IAEA and I are fully dedicated to reaching NHSI’s goals, but success requires the corresponding commitment of everyone involved. 

I am confident we will all rise to the occasion. This year’s progress has laid an excellent foundation. Overall, NHSI encompasses 30 Member States, 94 unique organizations and 201 contributors.

Together, we are on track to develop approaches to enhance national reviews, enabling regulators to take maximum advantage of international work and efforts by other regulators. This will lead to minimal repetition among regulatory reviews by different Member States and minimal need for design changes arising from regulatory differences. Together we can establish a common basis for Member States’ regulatory decisions while preserving their sovereignty. These outcomes will be captured in a series of IAEA publications and online toolkits planned for the end of 2024.

There are other issues to consider. For example, the benefits of addressing safeguards at an early point in SMR development. Generic safeguards approaches and inclusion of safeguards in regulatory pre-licensing reviews, where applicable, could reduce later burdens, costs and delays.

We have before us ambitious but eminently achievable goals. I urge you to keep an open mind. Continue to work together, pushing the momentum of progress forward. The outputs of these efforts could be used by national regulators and the industry to ensure that resources are saved and additional burden is avoided, while maintaining a focus on safety.

This is going to require work at this stage and at the implementation stage. It is going to necessitate that regulators and companies give their experts time and resources to get it done – to come to the workshops, to fully participate, to do the work at home, to get political decision makers on board.

If your goal is to strengthen nuclear safety at home and abroad, and if you want nuclear to really meet its potential, NHSI is the place to be, wide awake and engaged.

Like a rowing boat, we have our direction and the goal line in sight. It’s time to pull the oars together as hard as we can. 

In closing, I will use these final moments to announce next year’s plenary, which should find us very close to the concrete, usable guidance and recommendations we need so that advanced reactors, including SMRs, move from being the technology of tomorrow to the technology helping to address energy security and climate change today.

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