Accelerating SMR Deployment: New IAEA Initiative on Regulatory and Industrial Harmonization

Accelerating SMR Deployment: New IAEA Initiative on Regulatory and Industrial Harmonization

Jeffrey Donovan | IAEA Department of Nuclear Energy

Paula Calle Vives | IAEA Department of Nuclear Safety and Security

April 1, 2022

The IAEA has launched a new initiative bringing together policy makers, regulators, designers, vendors and operators to develop common regulatory and industrial approaches to SMRs.

Small modular reactors (SMRs) could make an important contribution to achieving global climate goals and energy supply security. But with more than 70 SMR designs under development in 18 countries – including innovative reactors that are yet to be licensed and novel methods of modular manufacturing that are new to the nuclear industry – widely deploying SMRs in time to address climate change remains a tall task.

To accelerate that process, the IAEA has launched a new initiative bringing together policy makers, regulators, designers, vendors and operators to develop common regulatory and industrial approaches to SMRs. The Nuclear Harmonization and Standardization Initiative (NHSI), announced earlier this month by IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi, aims to facilitate the safe and secure deployment of SMRs and other advanced nuclear technologies to maximize their contribution to achieving the goals of Agenda 2030 and the Paris Agreement, including reaching net zero carbon emissions by 2050.

“SMRs and other advanced nuclear technologies hold immense promise to help address the climate crisis,” Mr Grossi said. “But if countries are to fully benefit from their potential to significantly reduce emissions and provide reliable energy, then some challenges to global deployment must be addressed. That’s what this new initiative is all about.”

A fraction the size of large reactors and with lower upfront capital costs, SMRs look set to expand global access to reliable nuclear power. They are more flexible for integration with other clean energy sources and can also be used for non-electric applications such as industrial heat and hydrogen production. The first SMR units are already deployed: aboard a floating nuclear power plant in Russia and also in China, where high-temperature gas-cooled SMRs are set to provide low carbon heat to decarbonize industrial processes. Another SMR unit, water-cooled, is in an advanced stage of construction in Argentina, and the United States has certified an SMR design as meeting regulatory safety requirements.

The cost advantage of SMRs comes, partly, from the idea that prefabricated modules could be produced in factories and assembled on site. For this to work across borders, common industrial standards, codes and licensing requirements are needed, so that the same safety standards could apply regardless of the country of installation. A degree of harmony among different national nuclear regulatory approaches will also be key.

Towards harmonized regulation, standardized industrial approaches

“On the regulatory side, the aim is to increase regulatory collaboration, to establish common positions on technical and policy issues, to pave the way to greater harmonization, initially in the pre-licensing phase for SMRs, with an agreed expectation of high levels of safety and security for these advanced designs,” said Lydie Evrard, IAEA Deputy Director General and Head of the Department of Nuclear Safety and Security. 

For SMRs to become an important part of the global decarbonization efforts, a fundamental paradigm shift is needed, one that takes the approach of looking at nuclear as a global fleet, said Rumina Velshi, President and CEO of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission. “I have long argued that the harmonization of international standards and requirements wherever possible, as well as the possible harmonization of licensing and approval processes is essential for the safe and effective widespread deployment of SMRs,” she said.

Under the NHSI, the IAEA will bring together decision makers from governments, regulators, designers, technology holders, operators and other international organizations under two separate complementary tracks: one for technology holders and operators and another for regulators. These tracks, facilitated by the Agency, will then join up in 2024 under an IAEA framework to further advance the initiative, culminating in roadmaps with concrete action plans.

“For industry, the initiative will seek to provide a list of concrete actions and milestones for technology holders and operators to develop more standardized industrial approaches for design, manufacturing, construction, commissioning and operation of SMRs as well as generic user requirements and criteria,” said Aline des Cloizeaux, Director of the IAEA Division of Nuclear Power.

China supports global deployment of SMRs as part of the clean energy transition, and has joined the IAEA’s initiative, said Jianfeng Yu, Chairman of the China National Nuclear Corporation. “We are looking forward to participating in relevant work and making efforts and contributions in reaching harmonized SMR standards with the global nuclear industry,” he wrote in a letter to Mr Grossi.

The IAEA has in recent years intensified its work in providing support to Member States in the development and licensing of SMRs. In 2021, it established the Agency-wide Platform on SMRs and their Applicationsproviding a ‘one-stop-shop’ for IAEA Member States and other stakeholders interested in the development and deployment of the SMR technology. The IAEA is also reviewing the applicability of IAEA Safety Standards to SMRs and has supported, sine 2015, the SMR Regulators’ Forum, in which national regulators discuss approaches to this new technology. The IAEA has completed the review of over 60 safety standards to guide their application to a range of SMRs and innovative technology lifecycles and will publish a safety report this year.

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