Remarks by President Velshi at the Office for Nuclear Regulation Annual Industry Conference

June 5, 2019
London, England

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International Cooperation in Regulating Nuclear Innovation

Good morning everyone.

It is my great pleasure to be here with you this morning. Thank you Mark and Adriènne for giving me this opportunity. I have come to know both Adriènne and Mark quite well since my appointment last August. They are gifted leaders – and wonderful colleagues. Adriènne and I worked on our teamwork through a game of curling when she was in Ottawa a few months back. It was not something I think she had planned on ever doing, even if she is a Scot. But through curling, we got a very useful lesson in the importance of collaboration… planning ahead… and yelling really loudly.

Ladies and gentlemen, we live in a remarkable era – a time when the pace of technological change keeps accelerating. As a result, the status quo is in an almost perpetual state of transformation. Traditional businesses are being disrupted – undermined and overwhelmed by new rivals. Think about the sentences we say now. Sentences that would have made no sense even a decade ago: I’m going to Uber to my Air BnB and binge-watch some Netflix. The way we listen to music – completely reinvented. The way we take photographs and preserve our memories – totally different. The way we get around town. The way we book our vacations. All of it has been transformed. We can’t make the mistake of thinking our industry is immune to these influences. It’s not. All around us, we see changes underway. A societal shift toward clean energy alternatives. Innovative new research and infrastructure development in the nuclear field. A changing world opens the door to ingenuity – and better ways of building and doing things.

Now… what’s all this got to do with us – and our role as regulators? As head of the CNSC, I see our vision clearly: We are working to fulfill our obligations and achieve our goal of being one of the best regulators in the world. For today – and for tomorrow. With that in mind, I want to be very clear: Safety comes first. Now and always. We have no more important responsibility, and some may argue our duty is even more urgent in a time of innovation. We will always use science-based, risk-informed and technically sound regulatory practices. There is no room for compromise. But to the extent that it is possible, we strive at the CNSC to be agile and responsive. We are very much aware that we exist to protect people from risk – not from progress. So, what should we do as regulators to adapt to this period of intense change – and ensure we are fulfilling our responsibilities to protect people from risk, but not from progress?

I would propose that there are five steps we can take together.

First, as regulators, we need to be as transparent and open as possible. In a time of rapid change, it is more essential than ever that people have as much information as possible – and that this information can be easily understood. People want to know what is happening in the industry, and they want to be assured that we are working with skill and dedication to ensure public safety. In Canada, our decision-making commission holds public hearings and meetings that welcome public participation. These sessions are broadcast over the Internet. More documents and reports than ever before are now readily available online. Thoughtful public interventions have significantly contributed to us making better decisions on offsite emergency management planning, development of site-wide risk assessments and other matters. But more needs to be done to deepen trust in us as a regulator. Some members of the public say they still feel in the dark. That’s why we are striving to further increase meaningful public participation in the regulatory process. And we are working to make our scientific data more open and available to allow for better discourse.

The second thing we can do: We should devote more of our time to examining how other industries and other regulators are adapting to this era of innovation. I’m thinking about industries like banking, where regulators in Canada and many other countries have proved agile enough to allow the industry to make full use of modern communication and technology – all while continuing to protect the consumer from undue risk. And I’m also talking about an industry like aviation – where we’ve seen a very different story unfold with Boeing and its 737 MAX passenger aircraft. Two planes fell out of the sky and 346 people died. The entire fleet is now grounded. Investigations are ongoing. No conclusions have been reached. But some authoritative voices have suggested that there may have been a link between an innovative, automated system added to a decades’ old technology and the interface with the pilots. It has also been suggested that Boeing, the licensee, might have played too significant a role in the certification process, principally because the Federal Aviation Administration, the regulator, did not have the capacity to appropriately assess the technology. I have asked my staff to monitor this file closely to identify the relevant lessons for the nuclear industry – and our regulation of it.  Just as we learn from and try to emulate best practices, we must also take care to analyze instances in which technological progress may have – directly or indirectly – resulted in safety being compromised.

Third: We need to make sure we have the staff and expertise in place, or the ability to leverage the necessary expertise, to validate the innovative work that is brought before us. At the CNSC, we are already taking steps to ensure we have the skills on hand or in the pipeline. We have recruited over 70 new graduates in recent years to account for our projected attrition and to ensure we transfer valuable corporate knowledge. Developing and regulating innovation means above all never trying to minimize or mislead on any issue identified that could potentially have safety consequences, no matter how seemingly inconsequential. Finding that balance is important if we want to be sure to avoid potentially disastrous applications of novel technologies. Our efforts in this regard would be greatly enhanced by nuclear operators resolving to keep regulators informed and engaged from even the most preliminary stage of new developments.

Fourth – and this is a longer-term goal, but no less important – we need to work together and work harder to promote careers in the STEM disciplines for girls and women. What better way to adapt to a changing world than to infuse our industry with new energy and new perspectives – and ensure it is attracting the best and brightest of all genders? When we empower women, everyone benefits. Let me share with you a bit about my own personal history in our industry. I was one of the first female nuclear energy workers in Canada. In fact, I may have been the first Canadian woman to perform radioactive work. So let me tell you first hand: Women have made progress over the past 35 years. When I started in the business, the so-called women’s change room was used mostly by men who were trying to sneak a nap on the midnight shift. I still remember the night I stepped out of the shower to find a male colleague snoring happily along a bench. After that, I started locking the door.

It probably won’t surprise you to learn that in the male-dominated world of a 1980s nuclear plant, there were few surfaces that weren’t adorned with a smiling Playboy centrefold. When I first started doing work in a radiation area, I had to wear a men’s undershirt and men’s underwear. It had simply never occurred to them to buy women’s clothing. As an aside, I visited one of your nuclear facilities last week with Mina Gohan, the Deputy Chief Nuclear Inspector. Both of us were outfitted with the smallest available size of cover-alls. They fit me fine. But Mina, who is half my size, was swimming in hers. Not good in the practical sense – and not a good look for any industry in 2019. Yes, there has been some progress toward gender equality since my early days in the industry. But good is not good enough.

Here’s what we need to remember: If we are to take full advantage of the benefits of innovation, we need to attract the best and brightest to our industry. The best men and the best women. Impressive people with good ideas. When we exclude – or fail to open ourselves up to – part of the population, we fall short of our potential. This is everyone’s responsibility. I am very pleased to see that the UK government has a target of 40% of workers in the civil nuclear sector being women by 2030. Canada’s government is likewise committed to gender equality. But the numbers remain concerning: In much of the world, including Canada, Europe and the U.S., women still make up less than a quarter of those employed in STEM careers.

Not long ago, I saw a mother tweet about her daughter’s experience at a recent college apprenticeship fair in the UK. The daughter had put her name down for an engineering talk only to be told that she had been moved to a childcare talk instead because the engineering talk was for boys only. What message does this send? It says that even today – even in 2019 – STEM jobs are not for women. I would like to challenge each and every one of us here today to make a concerted effort to encourage girls and women to take an interest in careers in STEM-related fields and occupations. Men and women alike, we have within our respective spheres of influence the opportunity to encourage young women – and to make our processes, culture and work environment more conducive for women to succeed.

Which brings me to the fifth and final way we can fulfill our responsibilities: We need to cooperate more closely and more frequently. And we need to do so with a clear purpose. I hope you’ll agree that the relationship between Canadian and UK regulators is well-established and strong. We have worked well together in the past – and now, with the nuclear cooperation agreement between our two countries, our commitment has become more formalized. But we need to take that relationship to the next level, so we can both do more to encourage both innovation and modern regulation.

I’ll give you an example: Regulatory sovereignty has a time and a place. It’s important – because at the end of the day, we answer to our own people. But I think it makes a lot of sense for us to share our analyses, testing, modelling and research to the greatest extent possible. Take the scenario where a design is proposed for licensing in one of our countries, it goes through the licensing process, is approved or denied, and then is proposed in the other country.  Does it make sense in the interests of nuclear safety, consistency or efficiency not to share the information and analyses prepared during the initial licensing review process by the first country? No country’s regulator would ever be beholden to follow another country’s decision. But working more closely together in this fashion could save time, reduce the duplication of effort and lead to better, quicker and more informed decisions. It could also help foster closer professional relationships between the people on our staffs. And it could aid our efforts to help embarking nuclear countries do so in a responsible and effective way.

The ONR’s expertise with high-temperature gas, graphite-cooled reactors has been be very useful to my staff. And if the ONR ever gets a request for review of a heavy water design, I think I know some people that can help you out. That type of cooperation bodes well for the future as further innovative technologies come our way and we need to rely on and support each other even more. With greater cooperation, I believe we can set a standard that others in the world will seek to follow.

We can also use our enhanced influence to help guide policy makers, government officials and industry to solutions to address regulatory challenges that will be front and centre for the sector in years to come. I am thinking here, for example, of long-term nuclear waste management or the decommissioning of nuclear facilities. What’s absolutely clear is this: In a time of rapid technological change, our role has become even more important. We need to act in the interests of public safety – but also in the interests of our societal progress. We don’t want to be a bottleneck that prevents good work from being done – and innovation from being achieved.

We are already seeing the use of new technologies and approaches in the nuclear industry: here in the UK, in Canada and around the world. The 3-D printing of parts. Inspections that make use of drone technology. Putting predictive analytics to use for the maintenance of components. We must always be vigilant when it comes to an industry as important as ours. We must always be careful. But we must also be willing to accept and approve new methods when they are proven to be safe and in the public interest.

There is no one specific way to move forward in this new and challenging era. I can tell you that in Canada, I am working to position the CNSC so that it is technology neutral – open to new ways of doing things, so long as risk is appropriately considered. Perhaps the best example is small modular reactors. These SMRs are bringing innovation to decades’ old technologies. In general terms, opinion surveys show that the Canadian public is supportive of – or at least open to – these new reactors. They like that nuclear technology provides reliable power and low emissions.

But SMRs will be first-of-a-kind projects – and the public will rightfully expect and demand that they be demonstrated to be safe. Any misstep on the part of industry or by us, as the regulator, and that public support is likely to evaporate. This reinforces the importance of applicants doing absolutely all the work necessary to be able to demonstrate that the proposed applications of innovative technologies or approaches will not compromise safety. Of course, this is still the relatively easy stuff. At some point, we might be presented with an innovation for which the necessary expertise to consider it from a regulators’ perspective just does not exist. Trying to find that expertise, or to have a thoughtful discussion on how to proceed in the absence of such expertise, will mean relying on trustworthy and knowledgeable allies. And that is one of the reasons why I am thankful for the strong relationship we have with the ONR. And why I hope to make it even closer.

Ladies and gentlemen, I have worked in this industry for more than three decades. I am proud of its past – and our many accomplishments together. But I am even more excited about the future – the opportunities that await, and the potential that is yet to be achieved. This era of innovation and change will bring challenges – as it has brought challenges for so many established industries. But if we are agile and responsible, this can be a period of enormous progress. Together, we can ensure that nuclear remains at the forefront of major technological advances. We can show that safety can be preserved – while innovation is achieved. We all have a critical role to play in helping to ensure that this progressive vision of the future comes to pass.

Thank you.
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