The NEA is engaging with leading figures in the energy sector to explore new ways to address today's challenges. The latest in‑depth conversation was with Olivier Gupta, Director General of the French Nuclear Safety Authority (ASN) and NEA Director‑General William D. Magwood, IV on 23 March 2020.
Director General Olivier Gupta also serves as Chair of the Western European Nuclear Regulators Association (WENRA). As such, the first subject Gupta and Magwood examined was multilateral co-operation in nuclear regulation. “International exchanges are a cornerstone of nuclear safety,” Gupta noted. He then explained that national nuclear regulators play an important role in ensuring and enhancing global nuclear safety by exchanging best practices and experience. “For example, the lessons learnt from the Fukushima Daiichi accident were shared within the international nuclear community and those lessons have been applied around the world, as shown in the report that the NEA released three weeks ago,” Gupta said.
Magwood added that, since the Fukushima Daiichi accident, there has been a remarkable effort towards harmonisation of nuclear safety in Europe in terms of convergence towards common standards and approaches in regulation. Gupta provided an overview of the regulatory harmonisation process and the safety reference levels developed by WENRA. He explained that WENRA’s safety reference levels were based on the IAEA safety standards and built on local European best practices. “On the basis of these safety reference levels, we have harmonised our national regulations on a voluntary basis,” Gupta said. “I think we can be quite proud about the results: we have harmonised regulations all over Europe thanks to this instrument.”
The harmonisation of regulatory practices becomes particularly significant in the face of new and innovative nuclear technologies, as discussed at the NEA Multi-Sector Workshop on Innovative Regulation held in December 2020. “As regulators, we need to engage early in such new projects, because otherwise, we would miss the opportunity to influence the choices of the industry and also to set ambitious safety objectives,” Gupta said. “Our system does not rely much on regulatory prescription; it relies on technical dialogue with the industry, so this provides flexibility for new technologies and innovations.”
In this context, Magwood highlighted the new webinar series jointly organised by the NEA, the Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute (KAERI) and the Korean Nuclear Society (KNS) to explore the use of disruptive technologies in nuclear applications and discuss the future shape of nuclear safety systems. He also noted that France is quite advanced in this area. “It’s always a challenge for a regulator to review and license a disruptive technology, because, as regulators, we are not comfortable when the licensee brings to us a design without experience feedback,” Gupta said. “So the licensing process can take longer, but we have proven at the ASN that we are able to do that.”
The regulation of new and innovative technologies is also dependent upon mutual trust and confidence between regulatory authorities and the public. Stakeholder engagement should start early and be continued throughout the regulatory process. In view of this, Magwood asked Gupta how the ASN engages with its stakeholders and communicates the concept of risk when explaining the basis for regulatory decisions. “Nuclear safety is very complex and technical. So the most important thing is to be able to explain the regulatory process in simple words that are understandable by all stakeholders.” Gupta responded.
Gupta added that it is equally important to make sure that local populations are engaged actively in radiological protection through continuous dialogue, training opportunities and workshops. “I’m thinking about what has been done in Fukushima, giving radiation monitoring devices to the public so that they could be their own radiation protection advisor,” he said. “I think it’s the best way for them to understand and implement radiological protection guidelines.” Magwood agreed and added: “I admire what the people in Fukushima prefecture have done. They have become very sophisticated about radiological risk and contamination issues.”
On ensuring public trust, Gupta and Magwood agreed that regulators need to maintain their independence and objectivity and that they should avoid being seen as too close to the industry. In response to an audience question from Nuclear Transparency Watch on regulatory independency, Gupta highlighted the existing international and regional mechanisms that monitor regulators worldwide. “But we have to recognise that the independency of the regulators even in advanced nuclear countries did not happen overnight but took much time,” he said. Magwood agreed and added that the transition to regulatory independence is indeed a complicated process as it involves the transition of infrastructures, laboratories and staff resources. “Independence is extremely important,” he said. “If anything, the accident at Fukushima Daiichi reinforced that message around the world.”