Remarks by President Rumina Velshi at the Public Policy Forum
December 1, 2020
Virtually from Toronto, Ontario
It is my great pleasure to join you this afternoon to share my perspective on the topic of balancing innovation and safety in Canada’s nuclear sector.
And let me be clear from the start: Safety is never a trade-off. Ever. So, what we really have to balance is risk and innovation.
My thanks to the organizers for inviting me. I look forward to an engaging question and answer session and breakout discussions.
I’ll begin today with just a little background.
CNSC overview and priorities
The CNSC is Canada’s independent nuclear regulator.
I was appointed CEO in August 2018 for a five-year term.
Prior to that, I served as a Commission member at the CNSC for 6 years, and for 2 years as a board member at the Ontario Energy Board.
And if we really want to turn back the clock, I can tell you that I was one of the first female nuclear energy workers in Canada – more than 30 years ago.
So, if nothing else, I know my history – and I know it first-hand.
The CNSC regulates all things nuclear in Canada.
And that keeps us very busy because Canada has one of the most diverse nuclear sectors on earth, covering the full nuclear fuel cycle short of reprocessing and nuclear weapons.
Our focus is safety at all times, in all we do, and in everything we regulate.
Commission members make up the tribunal that makes licensing decisions and sets conditions for major nuclear activities and facilities in Canada.
These decisions may be reviewed only in federal court.
As part of its decision making, the Commission conducts public proceedings and considers information from proponents, CNSC staff and intervenors, or third parties.
The CNSC offers participant funding to eligible recipients to help them more fully participate in the Commission’s processes.
Almost 900 staff ensure compliance with the Commission’s decisions.
These dedicated and expert staff are spread throughout Canada in regional offices and site offices at major nuclear facilities.
Our vision is to be one of the world’s best regulators. In pursuit of this goal, we are guided by four key priorities.
The first is to have a modern approach to nuclear regulation.
That means using science-based, risk-informed and technically sound regulatory practices that take into account uncertainties and evolving expectations.
A modern approach allows us to evaluate new and innovative nuclear technologies – and to have a culture of openness, professionalism and respectful scientific debate free from any fear of reprisal.
Second, we strive to be a trusted regulator.
We want Indigenous groups, the public, industry, government and stakeholders – everyone – to see us as independent, competent, transparent, accessible and a credible source of information.
Our third priority is sharing our knowledge and our systems to enhance international safety, particularly through collaborative efforts. We want to be a source of global good.
And finally, our fourth priority is being an agile regulator. One that is inclusive, with an empowered and well-equipped workforce – but one that is also able to quickly adapt and respond to an evolving operating environment.
Our agility has been tested over the last eight months in ways that we couldn’t have imagined.
Innovation in responding to COVID-19
The COVID-19 crisis required us to quickly make adjustments to how we maintain oversight and enforce compliance.
Being agile and committed to continuous improvement has served us and our regulated community very well throughout the pandemic.
We have found opportunities to develop new and innovative ways of working.
That includes conducting remote inspections of nuclear establishments, which have proven both successful and cost effective.
It has also meant conducting desktop inspections by teleconference or videoconference with licensees.
CNSC inspectors have continued surveillance and monitoring activities remotely.
How? By participating in licensees’ daily meetings, by accessing licensee networks to retrieve nuclear power plant information and by monitoring licensee corrective action programs.
In short, we have been able to maintain strong regulatory oversight over major nuclear facilities throughout the pandemic, including the successful refurbishment of a power reactor at the Darlington site in Ontario.
And we have done it without compromising safety.
The crisis has forced upon us an imperative to innovate.
And more and greater innovation lies just over the horizon.
Readiness to regulate innovation
We know that industry is looking at how new ideas and technologies can be leveraged within existing nuclear facilities.
We know it wants to accelerate the pace of innovation and find innovative solutions to existing issues.
Why? To lower operation and maintenance costs and to extend the life of facilities.
So we’re talking about everything from robotics to quantum computing to using artificial intelligence to streamline the frequency of inspection and maintenance activities.
Fortunately, Canada’s nuclear industry is a high-reliability and smart industry, so its members are applying a cautious approach and starting with innovation on the conventional, or non-nuclear, side of their facilities.
That gives us an opportunity to see how they are approaching innovation generally; we want to learn with the industry so we aren’t caught flat-footed when nuclear innovation is proposed.
Developing, adopting and regulating nuclear innovation requires a methodical and transparent approach by all involved – industry, regulators and the public.
It is essential that regulators be able to get in on the ground floor whenever a significant innovation is being considered.
As I often tell our staff, our role is to protect people from risk, not from progress and innovation.
The Boeing 737 Max disaster has been very informative for us on this front.
Its failings have demonstrated that regulators need to be involved early in the review of new technologies, and ready and willing to apply increased scrutiny for first-of-a-kind and novel features.
This is particularly important when a technology will be integrated into an existing facility, so that we can understand any associated impacts it will have – not just the direct impact but also the impact on things such as procedures and training.
We also must have the requisite capacity to carry out our own due diligence – we cannot abdicate our reviews to licensees or proponents.
We will need to do the necessary research, be able to review industry’s research, and collaborate with partners, in Canada and internationally, on additional research, as appropriate.
It should go without saying that first-of-a-kind nuclear innovations are going to be heavily scrutinized.
If we aren’t brought in at the outset, there is a real possibility that this could result in unnecessary delays in reviewing and potentially approving innovative technologies.
This is particularly true if we don’t have the knowledge and expertise on hand or accessible, because I can assure you that our reviews will never be outsourced to industry.
We are committed to navigating the intersection of risk and innovation in the nuclear sector – and finding the proper balance.
Fortunately, we have a world-class, flexible and well-regarded nuclear regulatory framework that helps to strike the proper balance.
Just last year, an International Atomic Energy Agency peer review confirmed that our regulatory framework is comprehensive and robust.
It also found that we strive to continuously upgrade our framework to address new challenges and upcoming technologies.
In fact, we established a working group last year to identify and closely monitor disruptive, innovative and emerging technologies, known as DIET, so we understand the potential implications and whether any updates to our regulatory framework might be required.
Our framework sets out requirements and expectations that are technology neutral, based on globally recognized fundamental safety objectives, and drawn from decades of experience.
We are performance-based and not prescriptive with our nuclear regulatory requirements in Canada.
We regulate in a risk-informed manner and allow proponents to use alternative methods to meet our requirements as long as the safety case can be demonstrated.
And therein lies the crux of our balancing act – proponents have significant room to manoeuver so long as they can meet our safety requirements and we can verify that they do.
But that means the onus is on us, when faced with innovation, to go back to our underlying safety principles and ask ourselves if the requirements that have been developed based on these principles are commensurate with the risks presented by these new technologies.
Readiness for SMRs
Now, speaking of new reactors and innovation, let me briefly discuss small modular reactors, or SMRs.
For the last several years, it has been clear to us that SMRs are poised to potentially be the next chapter in the story of Canada’s nuclear industry.
The past year has reinforced that impression.
In December 2019, the premiers of New Brunswick, Ontario and Saskatchewan signed a memorandum of understanding to explore the potential for SMRs in various applications.
The Premier of Alberta has now indicated his intent to sign on to the agreement.
Our Minister of Natural Resources, Seamus O’Regan, has spoken favourably about SMRs.
Yesterday’s Fall Economic Statement singled out SMRs and the upcoming launch of the SMR Action Plan in the section on Building the Foundation for a Net-Zero Carbon Future.
The Action Plan represents commitments and actions from all of the key players in Canada’s nuclear sector to help realize the goal of making Canada a leader in the rapidly developing SMR market.
From our perspective, as an independent regulator, we make no judgment about the merits of SMRs. But we are certainly interested observers.
We need to be ready to regulate whatever is proposed in Canada, so we need to be at the table to ensure we have as much lead time as possible and a good idea of where things are headed.
In October 2020, Minister O’Regan and his colleague Navdeep Bains, Minister of Innovation, Science and Industry, announced $20 million in funding to an SMR company to complete our vendor design review service.
That service is a pre-licensing assessment of a proposed design’s progress toward achieving compliance with Canadian requirements, but it is no guarantee of approval.
However, it gives a good indication of any potential fundamental barriers to licensing that may be emerging in the design.
This service has given CNSC staff the opportunity to familiarize themselves with various SMR technologies.
That is important because all of the proposed technologies are new to us – none are like the CANDU, or pressurized heavy water reactor technology, the only power reactor technology that we have regulated for decades in Canada.
This work has made it clear that we do not have all the answers.
We therefore regularly engage with international colleagues to share information and insights from our respective review work to try to fill in any gaps.
International collaboration is pivotal here because SMRs are gaining momentum in many countries, particularly as a tool in the fight against climate change.
We are therefore pleased to be able to leverage our long-time good standing in the international nuclear regulatory community to take a leadership role on SMRs.
We are a prominent voice on the International Atomic Energy Agency’s SMR Regulators’ Forum and working groups, as well as on Nuclear Energy Agency 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.
This role provides me an important opportunity to show leadership in considering key safety issues with my international colleagues, including those related to SMRs.
I am convinced that greater international collaboration is pivotal for regulators to be able to respond to SMRs smartly and effectively.
For that reason, I will be working with my colleagues in this group to prioritize setting safety standards for SMRs, something I hope we can accomplish during my time as Chair.
Also, I am proud that we have been able to sign agreements with the United States’ and United Kingdom’s nuclear regulators to guide our collaborative efforts on SMRs.
This close cooperation will serve us well, as reviews of technologies by one of us can be used by the others.
If three mature regulators conclude they have no reservations with a design during a pre-licensing review, there should be significant confidence that the technology will not present major impediments during the licensing process.
Proponents would of course still need to demonstrate an ability to perform licensed activities safely in accordance with regulatory requirements in their own country.
But working more closely together is likely to save time, reduce the duplication of effort and lead to better, quicker and more informed decisions without compromising safety.
Beyond that, I hope that effective international collaboration will help pave the way to international harmonization of regulatory requirements.
I am convinced that this harmonization is a pre-requisite for the ready deployment of similar SMR designs across national boundaries.
The experience we have gained in collaborating on SMRs is already paying off by supporting collaboration on other technologies.
For example, we are working with France on artificial intelligence and with the United States on remote inspections and training.
It goes without saying that SMRs are first-of-a-kind projects, and the public rightfully expects and demands that they be safe.
Not getting it right in Canada’s nuclear sector risks undermining trust in the CNSC.
And building and maintaining trust is one of our key priorities that I referred to earlier.
Both we, as the regulator, and the industry need to be absolutely committed to including everyone with an interest in our processes and establish meaningful relationships so that all information and perspectives are considered.
And that applies equally, if not more so, to the proposed introduction of innovative nuclear technologies.
This will hopefully result in confidence that the best, most informed decision is taken in every instance and that approved projects are safe.
The CNSC as regulator has a role to play here.
But it is up to the proponents of these projects to do the hard work of spending time and effort in communities – to know the people and to be known by them – in order to establish a basis of mutual understanding.
When it comes to new technologies and innovations, from SMRs to artificial intelligence applications, the industry will have much work to do to gain communities’ acceptance.
So, to wrap up, the safety of nuclear facilities and activities is the focus and goal in all that we do, and that will never change.
That applies equally to existing facilities and to innovative technologies, including SMRs.
The CNSC’s regulatory framework gives proponents ample flexibility to meet safety goals and demonstrate the safety case through various methods.
And it gives us an opportunity to review and examine how we assess risks as the regulator to always make sure that our requirements are commensurate with the associated risk.
This reality has been underlined during the pandemic when, even in the midst of this crisis, no licensee has needed to request an exemption or exception from our requirements to continue carrying out their activities.
Our role in balancing risk and innovation is fairly straightforward.
We must ensure that we have the expertise necessary to review our requirements to ensure they are appropriate and make recommendations for regulatory and licensing decisions on proposed innovations.
Of course, we must continue to ensure that our processes are open and transparent. They must welcome and consider the perspectives of all with an interest or concern.
The industry must ensure that the regulator is involved from the beginning in the consideration of any innovative technology so that we understand it, are prepared to respond to it, and do not become an unnecessary bottleneck.
Industry’s much larger challenge is to inform and engage the public and local communities on proposed innovative projects and technologies and gain support well before any licensing process.
That has not always been a top priority in the past, but it must be going forward.
Ours will be a bold, innovative, and at times probably overwhelming future, and we must navigate it safely, smartly and transparently – there is no other way.
I look forward to your questions and consideration of these issues during the breakout discussions.
I am curious to hear if you think we have found the right balance and welcome any suggestions on how we might approach things differently.
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