NEA multisector workshop – President’s Velshi’s opening remarks
December 14, 2020
Virtually from Toronto, Ontario
– Check against delivery –
I am delighted to be here with my good friend Bill Magwood, to help open this important and timely initiative to identify challenges and benefits in harmonizing licensing processes for innovative technologies.
And I am very glad that it will be moderated by my colleague at Canada’s nuclear regulator, Mr. Ramzi Jammal, our Executive Vice-President; you could not be in more capable hands.
Innovation is having impacts around the world and the nuclear sector is no different.
Many of you here today come from sectors that have dealt with or are dealing with innovation.
From drones to driverless cars, genetic editing to digital currencies, this era of innovation shows no sign of slowing and is likely to continue advancing at an ever more rapid pace.
This pace of change requires regulators to take a serious look at processes, standards and requirements to determine if they are appropriate to innovative technologies.
And since many regulators share common goals of safety at all times, and being in a state of readiness to regulate innovative technologies, it makes sense to collaborate as much as possible and make best use of our limited resources – human, information and technology.
I am hopeful that the ways in which some of you here from other sectors have and are responding to innovation can provide important lessons learned for nuclear regulators – both good and not so good.
Of particular interest is what opportunities or challenges have arisen from harmonization.
Does innovation automatically encourage or allow for greater harmonization?
Or does harmonization remain an unobtainable ideal with national actors paying lip service, making gestures or offering platitudes to it as a goal while continuing to work largely in their silos?
I look forward to hearing your insights and learning lessons from you over the next five days.
I am hopeful this gathering will be helpful to us in navigating our road ahead safely and effectively.
As the head of Canada’s independent nuclear regulator, the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, or the CNSC, and as someone with almost 40 years in Canada’s nuclear sector, I have made collaboration on innovation with a goal of harmonization one of our key priorities.
Getting ready for innovation
We have had to deal with our share of innovation in Canada, but it has largely centred around the fuel cycle for Canada’s homegrown CANDU, or pressurized heavy water power reactor technology, which dominates Canada’s nuclear sector.
More recently, the COVID-19 pandemic has forced us and our regulated community to be innovative in ways that we hadn’t anticipated, including a reliance on virtual technologies for inspections, surveillance and monitoring.
I am glad to report that we, the regulator, and our regulated community, have performed exceptionally well during the pandemic, which is a testament to our priorities of agility and continuous improvement.
In fact, based on what I have seen, I would say the nuclear sector around the world has managed through COVID quite admirably.
We know that nuclear operators in Canada and elsewhere have intentions for the adoption of more advanced innovative technologies going forward.
Those innovations include robotics, quantum computing and artificial intelligence, additive manufacturing and advanced cyber security.
We see it as our responsibility in Canada to do all that we reasonably can to try and be ready to review these technologies and to regulate them, if they are approved by the Commission.
As I have often stated, our role is to protect people from risk, not from progress and innovation.
And since Canada is not alone in facing a near future of innovation in the nuclear sector, it is imperative that we collaborate as extensively as possible.
Because it is highly unlikely that any one of us will have all the answers we need on our own.
An excellent example of this can be found in small modular reactors or SMRs.
Collaboration on SMRs
These technologies are rapidly gaining traction around the world as an attractive option to address electrification and heating needs in remote locations and to meet climate change goals, among other potential applications.
It is very clear in Canada that governments and proponents are taking a serious look at adopting SMR technologies.
The Canadian government will release an action plan on SMRs before the end of 2020.
Four provinces have agreed to collaborate on the development and deployment of SMRs.
Ontario Power Generation, a nuclear power plant operator in Ontario, announced last month that it intends to adopt SMR technology at its Darlington site under a licence issued in 2012.
And, we have moved quickly beyond the theoretical as we at the CNSC are currently reviewing our first proposal for a micro modular reactor in Canada.
This prototype is very much in keeping with the history of the development of Canada’s CANDU technology – build a demonstration unit, review and assess and make any improvements necessary, before deploying a commercial unit.
The design, a high-temperature gas-cooled reactor, was reviewed by CNSC staff through our vendor design review service, which we have offered for several years and which has proven very popular with SMR vendors.
This service offers no guarantee of successful licensing, but does give an important pre-licensing indication of potential challenges to meeting Canadian requirements.
And it provides an important opportunity for CNSC staff to review designs that they have no familiarity with.
There are currently 12 designs at various phases of the process.
Neither the proposed micro modular reactor nor any other of the 12 designs we are reviewing are like the CANDU technology that we are so accustomed to.
Recognizing the broad interest in SMR technologies around the world and the novelty of the designs for us, we have been very active in and advocating for international collaborative activities on SMRs.
This work allows us to share knowledge, best practices and lessons learned with our peers.
We are a prominent voice on the International Atomic Energy Agency’s, or IAEA, SMR Regulators’ Forum and working groups, as well as on the Nuclear Energy Agency’s, or NEA, SMR-related working groups.
I was honoured in February of this year to be named as Chair of the IAEA’s Commission on Safety Standards, or CSS.
The CSS establishes standards relevant to nuclear, radiation, transport and waste safety, and emergency preparedness and response.
I will be working with my colleagues on this group to prioritize setting safety standards for SMRs, something I hope we can accomplish during my time as Chair.
And over the last two years we have signed agreements with the United States and United Kingdom nuclear regulators to guide our collaborative efforts on SMRs.
Those efforts include sharing regulatory insights from technical design reviews and looking at developing common guidance for reviewing new build licence applications.
Together, the work ongoing at the IAEA and NEA and our bilateral work with the U.S. and UK, will undoubtedly reinforce the imperative for harmonization to the greatest degree possible.
With so many innovative technologies potentially coming to regulators, and with a limited pool of specialists to draw from around the world, we need to build as many efficiencies into the process while of course always staying true to our safety focus.
This will help all nuclear regulators around the world – from the most mature to those only starting out.
I was pleased to learn that the World Nuclear Association, the WNA, in collaboration with the CANDU Owners’ Group, or COG, will be releasing a white paper during this workshop that looks at best practices in harmonization, which is something that we requested and which the WNA and the COG kindly led.
All of this work, and the insights and lessons learned you share over the next several days will hopefully lay the groundwork and help us make important progress toward harmonization.
But I know the road to get there will be challenging and that there are likely to be significant obstacles to overcome.
First and foremost will be concerns over regulatory and national sovereignty.
That is not unique to the nuclear sector – in virtually every sector, governments and national authorities insist on domestic final approval of the adoption of a technology.
The licensing process is the last step that national authorities have to decide if a proposed design or technology is sufficiently safe for their particular context.
I don’t think that dynamic is likely to change anytime soon.
Reflecting upon that, it occurred to me that before we work to harmonize the licensing process, perhaps we need to focus on harmonizing the other elements that will allow for consistent, informed decisions around the world.
I think that means we encourage sharing of regulatory reviews to establish technical baselines, as we are doing with the U.S. and UK.
Other nuclear countries should take great comfort if reviews conducted by us three, mature, respected regulators conclude we have no reservations with licensing a technology.
The more reviews that are done and shared, the better the baseline we will be able to build.
Using that knowledge, we can take a close look at our regulatory frameworks to ensure that the related requirements are commensurate with the risks presented by a technology or class of technologies.
If we find that they are not, we could work to establish harmonized international standards that are commensurate with the risks presented and are minimally sufficient for the needs of all countries.
That is something I hope to make progress on through the CSS.
I am pleased that the IAEA has already started taking action in this area.
An analysis is currently being conducted to ensure that IAEA standards can be applied in a technology neutral manner commensurate with risk.
And consideration is also being given to developing a comprehensive program of work that will help member states to safely site, design, operate, assess and regulate SMRs.
However, regulators could also be working to establish harmonized requirements that are acceptable for all countries.
Working in this way, we might gradually build trust, among governments, regulators and the public, to eventually get to a point where licensing and approval processes can be harmonized.
That might be particularly relevant for certain SMR technologies that will be produced on an assembly line and shipped around the world.
The approval of a design in Canada and another country or countries, may be sufficient for other countries to adopt that approval once a sufficient number have been installed and operated to gain some operating experience and comfort.
Or perhaps that will never happen.
But those are some of the issues and variables I hope you will consider while here.
Getting harmonization right on SMRs will provide important lessons learned and a valuable baseline for taking the same approach on other innovative technologies.
I think we owe it to ourselves, to our regulated community and to the public we protect to see what is possible.
That will require a concerted effort in building and maintaining trust.
It starts with building trust among regulators so that we have confidence that we are each on the road to harmonization for the right reasons and with the right intentions.
It ends with building trust with proponents and the public in us as regulators and in the licensing processes we have in place and the decisions we make.
I would therefore like to issue four challenges for you to consider during your time at this workshop:
- How will we set clear regulatory requirements for safety that are both risk-informed, so reflect an understanding of the actual risks posed by the technologies, and which also allow room for and encourage innovation and technical advancement?
- How do we leverage lessons learned and operational experience from other high-reliability sectors such as aviation, transportation, pharmaceutical and finance on harmonization?
- What is the balance between harmonization and national regulator sovereignty – are we limited to reviews, standards and requirements or will it be ultimately possible to harmonize licensing processes and approvals?
- How do regulators embark on this journey while ensuring public trust in us as regulators and in our processes and decisions?
It might be overly optimistic to think that we will be able to address these four challenges fully during these five days, but I welcome your efforts and appreciate your insights and experience in helping us take the first steps.
I hope you have a productive workshop.
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