Speech: Five steps to change the paradigm on SMRs

25 October 2022

Small modular reactors (SMRs) are likely to be an important part of the next generation in nuclear, but a paradigm shift is needed to enable their safe deployment with the speed and magnitude required, according to Rumina Velshi in this extract from her remarks to the 4th International Conference on Generation IV and Small Reactors (G4SR-4) earlier this month.

Velshi addressing G4SR-4, which took place 3-6 October in Toronto

"Let me begin with this notion of a paradigm shift.

When we think about SMRs, so much of the focus is on the S for small. But what really differentiates them from traditional reactors is the M for modular.

If SMRs are to play a significant role in fighting climate change and addressing energy security - jurisdictions around the world will need to capitalise on their modular potential.

SMRs will need to be deployed quicker, less expensively, and much more widespread than reactors of the past. The nuclear sector will require a significant shift from traditional large-scale projects to a streamlined product-based model.

As a regulator, for us safety will always come first - there is no shift there. But we have also been steadfast and vocal that we do not want to be an unnecessary burden or impediment to innovative technologies - such as SMRs. And I firmly believe this extends to doing our part to bring about the enabling conditions necessary to support the possibility of a safe and efficient product-based model for SMR deployment.

This will not be easy, it will take time, and it will require a retooling of the existing international governance of the nuclear industry, and frankly - a willingness to be bold.

To me there are five enabling conditions.

First, there needs to be movement towards the international harmonisation of regulation. Second, efforts need to be made on the international standardisation of designs or design requirements. Third, all of this must be rooted in effective international oversight involving collaboration previously not witnessed in our sector. Fourth, the political will must be there. And fifth, everything we do must prioritise trust building.

So how do we get there?

We will not achieve international harmonisation of regulations overnight - or maybe ever. But there are solid steps that regulators around the world can take - and are taking - to move the yardstick in the right direction.

This includes harmonising codes and standards; finding opportunities to coordinate, leverage or adopt technology reviews by other regulators; and challenging our licensing processes to ensure they are appropriate for SMRs based on risk.

And we must do so in a way that allows for continued national sovereignty in regulatory decision-making.

However, regulatory harmonisation - and the efficiencies that would flow from it - cannot occur on the 70-plus SMR designs currently being proposed.

For the paradigm shift to be successful, industry and governments will have to strive towards standardised designs, standardised approaches to design requirements, and standardised deployment and operating models.

Even if we make good progress on harmonisation and standardisation, the successful, safe, and widespread deployment of SMRs hinges on strong and appropriate oversight. Getting there will require international collaboration at a much deeper level than today, with a commitment to meaningful progress and rapid change.

From an international regulatory perspective, international oversight must come from the International Atomic Energy Agency - or IAEA. Member states need to work together to ensure the proper mechanisms are in place at the IAEA to support harmonisation and standardisation - and ultimately the safety and security of SMRs around the world.

For industry, at a global level, international oversight means sharing information on deployment and operating experiences widely and openly. It also means ensuring your own peer reviews - for example, through WANO - are supported and strengthened.

Next for this paradigm shift to occur, governments need to have the political will to support SMRs; provide funding to regulators, industry and international organisations; and make the timely policy decisions necessary to enable successful deployment.

Finally, there will be no future for SMRs if there is no trust in the technology.

We must all dedicate ourselves to sincere, sustained, and substantive engagement, consultation, and trust building with members of the public and host communities. In Canada, this is especially so with Indigenous Nations and communities in the context and spirit of reconciliation.

We all have a role to play.

It is for industry and governments to earn community trust and acceptance of SMRs - to make the case for SMRs. And it is for regulators to build trust and confidence in regulatory decision-making and assure communities that - if approved - strong and independent oversight will be there to keep them safe.

We are at a unique moment in human history.

Nuclear energy, a non-emitting and well-regulated technology throughout its lifecycle, yet often feared and misunderstood, could help arrest or prevent further impacts from the use of emitting sources and provide energy security for many countries.

Unlocking the potential of SMRs will only be possible if a paradigm shift occurs in how the nuclear sector approaches deployment. Only through a fundamental shift will this technology be able to play the role that many think and hope it can in the timelines needed.

As a regulator, we are here to ensure SMRs are safe. But it is every regulator's role to watch its industry, see where it is headed, and be ready to carry out its regulatory mandate efficiently and effectively.

We see this paradigm shift coming and know it will require much work from everyone - international organisations, governments, regulators and industry, all focused on deploying a reasonable number of technologies.

The CNSC continues to show leadership in laying the enabling conditions through our efforts within Canada, bilateral cooperation with the US, and work with the IAEA and NEA. We will continue to play a role in enabling the safe, efficient and timely deployment of SMRs to meet Canada's and the world's needs.

The war in Ukraine is unfortunately anticipated to extend throughout at least the upcoming winter. We are likely to witness first-hand some of the trade-offs that countries are willing to make to prevent people from freezing while pursuing energy security and meeting climate commitments. I think this puts into stark relief how imperative it is for us to collaborate and coordinate our efforts to give policy makers another option.

But it will not be a viable option for the world without a paradigm shift.

The challenge is ours and it is one I am confident we can meet."

Rumina Velshi is the president and CEO of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission. The full text of her speech can be read here.