Regulatory: Velshi Revives Harmonization Debate at IAEA

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Canadian regulator Rumina Velshi chaired her first session of the International Atomic Energy Agency's (IAEA) Commission on Safety Standards (CSS) this week over the protests of domestic critics who say Velshi could lower international standards in the interests of innovative reactor development. While much of their criticism focused on issues specific to the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC), the critics have also flagged Velshi's push for increased regulatory harmonization between national regulators, particularly regarding development of new technologies such as small modular reactors (SMRs), which Canada wants to lead. Both the IAEA and the CNSC defended Velshi, who was appointed in February to head the otherwise obscure CSS for the next four years. "Ms. Velshi intends to use her chairmanship to build on Canada's contribution and to champion the importance of greater harmonization of standards and ensure they support nuclear innovation while never compromising safety," the CNSC said when it announced Velshi's appointment. This immediately raised the hackles of CNSC critics Gordon Edwards, of the Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility, Ole Hendrickson, of the Ottawa River Institute, and Eric Notebaert, a doctor with the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment. "We fear that Ms. Velshi's chairmanship could result in the lowering of international standards, with an emphasis on benefits to the industry and support of 'innovation' at the expense of public protection," the three men wrote in a Mar. 12 letter to IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi. That letter highlighted a recurrent debate in the global nuclear industry: to what extent does harmonization between national regulators -- particularly in the review of new technologies -- advance safety concerns, and to what extent does it simply cater to industry and blur into regulatory capture? Fourteen years ago this debate played out through the creation in 2006 of the Multilateral Design Evaluation Program (MDEP), a multinational initiative to allow national regulators to compare notes as they began reviewing a handful of new Generation 3+ midsized reactor designs. MDEP was actually first conceived as the Multilateral Design Acceptance Program (MDAP), which could have paved way toward a radical overhaul of the regulatory system in which the single approval of a reactor design by one MDAP regulator would suffice for its construction approval in any other MDAP member country. This was seen as a means to achieve the industry goal of a unified design applied and built across national borders without having to go through expensive, time-consuming design approvals in each country. This was too much for some regulators who saw MDAP as an impermissible breach of national sovereignty, and the program was watered down to the current MDEP. "There is really good benefit and value to sharing information," one former regulator told Energy Intelligence, "but ultimately, final regulatory decisions have to rest with domestic regulators." The debate has resurfaced as regulators prepare to review new designs for SMRs and advanced reactors, and Velshi has been a key advocate of enabling new technologies and greater regulatory harmonization almost since her appointment in June 2018 (NIW Jun.22'18). The CNSC "has a key role to play in positioning Canada to become a global leader in emerging nuclear technologies" such as SMRs, she said in an initial speech as president and CEO of the CNSC in July 2018 (NIW Jul.20'18). And "the time is now to think boldly and look critically at regulatory frameworks and be open to the need to re-engineer them," she said in a Feb. 11 speech earlier this year (NIW Feb.14'20). That speech was praised as "inspirational" and "refreshing" by one official from the World Nuclear Association, which in 2007 established the "Cooperation in Reactor Design Evaluation and Licensing" working group to push for greater regulatory harmonization (NIW Apr.19'10). Harmonization vs. Capture The fact that the industry has pushed so hard for regulatory harmonization doesn't help its image among nuclear critics and Velshi's links to industry only makes matters worse on that score. Before joining the CNSC she worked as a senior executive for Ontario Power & Gas, and this background means "she may not qualify as 'independent'" according to the agency's own standards, spelled out in its 2018 guide for the organization, management and staffing of safety regulators, Velshi's critics wrote to Grossi. "We submit that Ms. Velshi's perceived lack of independence from the nuclear industry makes her unsuitable to serve as the chairperson of the IAEA's commission on safety standards." The IAEA disagrees. Director General Grossi "is looking forward to CNSC President Velshi’s contribution as CSS Chair," an IAEA spokesperson told Energy Intelligence. "Canada’s nuclear regulator is a mature and highly respected regulator whose leadership will make an important contribution to this important work for the benefit of all member states. The IAEA's Safety Standards are established in consultation with all IAEA member states and other relevant international organizations." The CSS is primarily devoted to updating technical safety standards for everything from nuclear technologies and radiation to transport, waste and emergency preparations. These updates are generally approved during annual meetings held twice a year, including this week's meeting from Apr. 14-16, which was conducted via an online review and approval procedure. Velshi "will chair the CSS as one of the most respected international leaders in nuclear safety," a CNSC spokesperson told Energy Intelligence. "The CSS is constituted of experts with specific technical expertise" who are appointed by Grossi. "Any decision made by the CSS must be reached through a consensus of all members states. If consensus is not reached, then there is no approval." And while in her capacity as CSS Chair Velshi will provide recommendations to Grossi, he "may accept or reject" them. The CNSC spokesperson also defended Velshi against conflict-of-interest concerns. Velshi and other CNSC members "commit to the highest standards of ethics and conflict-of-interest guidelines, and carry out their duties impartially." But that doesn't mean the issue of harmonization won't come up during Velshi's tenure heading the CSS. Forums such as the CSS allow countries "to discuss how countries can harmonize their work, as well as to share and/or implement bold new approaches," said the spokesperson. Enhancing the harmonization of nuclear standards, particularly for innovative technologies, "is aligned with the core functions of the CSS and the IAEA's statute and therefore supportive of international standards." Phil Chaffee, London

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