Stakeholder coordination essential for nuclear to innovate

Close coordination between regulators, operators, utilities, and investors is vital if nuclear is to innovate in a safe and affordable way, say industry and regulatory experts.

The control room at Pickering Nuclear Power Generating Station near Toronto, Canada. (Source: Reuters/Carlos Osario)

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The nuclear power sector in North America and Europe is at a turning point.

A whole generation of power plants – built in the sixties and early seventies and running on mostly analogue technology – are facing decommissioning or refurbishment while a new generation of state-of-the-art alternatives are being tested today for deployment by the end of the decade.

Recent studies have shown that refurbishing the industry’s old workhorse reactors, which have reliably pumped out power 24/7 at high capacity for decades, is the most cost-effective, dispatchable, low-carbon power producing technology on the market. The new generation offers an array of advanced features that promise increased safety and productivity.

In both cases, scientists are using significantly different technology than was even imagined during the first wave of reactors which, before refurbishment, continue to operate today much as they did when they were built.

“In some instances it was said that you could leave the sector in the 70s and 80s and come back 20 years later and sit at your old desk and get back to work because the technology at its heart had not moved on,” says Director for International Engagement, Security & Non-Proliferation at the UK National Nuclear Laboratory Rob Whittleston.

This, in fact, has been the strength of the technology. Nuclear power has been a disruptive technology in its own right ever since its introduction, Whittleston says, comparable only to hydroelectric systems in generating huge amounts of carbon-free energy.

However, the generation landscape today is changing and nuclear must change with it.

“The issue now is that in order to play its role in a different looking energy mix, it has an opportunity to change its game. That is why the industry is working hard to ensure nuclear is cost competitive and more flexible,” he says.

"Advanced nuclear technologies, such as small and advanced modular reactors, as well as hydrogen production in nuclear, are all examples of where disruptive tech is being considered and deployed to meet the world's future energy needs, and to power net zero here in the UK."

High stakes

Introducing different technology and systems – whether for new machines or to refurbish the old – is deeply challenging for a heavily regulated industry that cannot afford the slightest mistake for both safety and financial reasons.

Part of the problem of bringing new technology to the nuclear industry is that each stakeholder has a different view on what that means.

From the utilities, innovation must mean improved safety and lower cost while the regulator considers new technology as something that must be categorized and quantified before it’s given the green light amid concerns surrounding the risks of changing a legacy safety system.

Investors, meanwhile, want it as fast as possible and cheap.

“For innovation to be successful, we must find a way to bring together all stakeholders early on in the innovation process; the end user, the regulator, laboratories, governments, all brought together early on in terms of understanding how a particular technology might be able to be used within the nuclear sector and to really understand the barriers and challenges to take that forward," Chief Science and Technology Officer at the UKNNL Fiona Rayment said during an OECD NEA webinar on disruptive technologies.

The series of webinars, 'From NI2050 to Disruptive Technologies for Nuclear Safety Applications', aimed to explore the use of new technologies in nuclear applications and the specific challenges that they pose for all the stakeholders.

A key to success: Better aligning technology and licensing readiness 

(Source: OECD NEA; “From NI2050 to Disruptive Technologies for Nuclear Safety Applications”) 

The NEA Nuclear Innovation 2050 (NI2050) initiative was started in 2015 and is a push to bring together the disparate elements of the nuclear industry from all over the world to examine how, collectively, it could develop and deploy new and innovative technologies.

“We started asking why is nuclear not innovating. Initially, we thought that people are just happy to keep going as they are,” says Executive Director for the Versatile Test Reactor (VTR) Project at the Idaho National Laboratory (INL) Kemal Pasamehmetoglu.

“The issue is not that we don’t have ideas. The issue, as we found out, is that getting those ideas to the finish line is difficult in nuclear. It is expensive and quite often people with innovative ideas don’t have access to the facilities to test their ideas.”

When integrated with the rest of the research and development infrastructure, the VTR will go a long way toward addressing that as well as giving the regulator the tools it needs to make an informed decision on the technology it is charged with regulating, Pasamehmetoglu says.

“In the absence of a comprehensive R&D infrastructure, including the VTR, they can try to regulate the reactor based on past knowledge, but in the absence of new data and the absence of tools to generate that data, there’s only so much they can do to enable rapid deployment of innovative technologies,” he says.

A team of experts from six national laboratories, 19 universities and nine industry partners have been developing a design, cost estimate and schedule for the VTR, which will test the performance and safety of advanced reactor materials, since the program was established in 2018. The team at INL, where it will be housed, hopes to start the reactor between 2026 and 2031.

Regulatory harmonization

It is important for the industry that the different country’s regulators are on the same page from the beginning, especially for the countries that are embracing new technology like small modular and advanced reactors such as Canada, the United States and Britain.

“Canada has an SMR action plan. The United States has already reviewed and certified an SMR and in the UK, Rolls-Royce will be achieving generic design assessment based on its own design. So, trilaterally, we’ve got a lot in common,” says Executive vice-president & Chief Regulatory Operations Officer for the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) Ramzi Jammal.

Global safety rules are based on International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safety criteria and it is there where interconnectivity and harmonization takes place, Jammal says.

“The neutrons in the UK are the same neutrons in the United States and Canada. We have to build the trust with the public that this disruptive way is not eroding safety. And that can be a challenge.”

Like regulation for the COVID-19 vaccine, where it has been essential to keep the public trust while at the same time move fast enough for the industry to innovate, the way forward is rolling, progressive regulation, Jammal says.

By Paul Day