Remarks by Rumina Velshi at the NEA Workshop on the Management of Spent Fuel, Radioactive Waste and Decommissioning in SMRs or Advanced Reactor Technologies

Speech

Introduction

Good morning, everyone.

It is my great pleasure to join all of you and my distinguished colleagues from other agencies and organizations.

Thank you, Bill, for organizing this workshop with Natural Resources Canada, and the opportunity extended to me to share some thoughts on the theme of this workshop.

Before doing so, I would like to acknowledge that we are gathered here in Ottawa on the unceded traditional territory of the Algonquin Anishinabeg peoples.

Canada’s federal government has made important investments in SMRs this year, including $50 million for the CNSC through Budget 2022 and almost $1 billion a couple of weeks ago in a proposed project at Darlington in Ontario that makes Canada a G-7 leader in the deployment of grid-scale SMRs.

And just last week in its fall economic statement it introduced new tax incentives for clean energy, which includes nuclear.

For SMR technologies to have a viable future, the issues of waste management and decommissioning will need to be addressed in a way that builds confidence among the public and decision makers.

Doing so will be crucial to SMRs’ acceptability as a timely and accessible option to help meet climate change commitments and support energy security.

The public, as does the regulator, demands the safe management of wastes, and the safe execution of decommissioning, at all times.

The nuclear sector globally has a great track record to date on managing radioactive wastes safely.

Concerted effort is required to ensure the same holds true for the SMR era.

Accordingly, I want to challenge us all on 2 fronts:

  1. Planning together, and 
  2. Doing things differently

These issues may be discussed during this conference; regardless, both need to be prioritized going forward.

Implicit in this is the need to continue building relationships and trust with the public, and vitally important in Canada, with Indigenous Nations and communities.

Planning together

Radioactive waste must be managed to ensure there is no undue burden on future generations.

Its management must be based on a lifecycle responsibility approach.

All steps in waste management – from generation to disposal – must be taken into account as part of an integrated waste management system.

And it must account for the interdependencies among all steps in managing radioactive wastes, particularly the long-term plans.

The onus is now on industry, in collaboration with policy makers, to develop an integrated plan.

This plan must be developed with full engagement and consultation of the public and Indigenous Nations and communities.

Developing an integrated plan will be crucial to earning the trust of the public and Indigenous Nations and communities, and the approval of decision makers.

International regulators are working to ensure regulatory frameworks are appropriate to address the particularities of wastes from SMRs.

Our goal is to harmonize requirements and standards, share reviews and streamline licensing processes as much as possible, while maintaining our regulatory sovereignty.

To ensure regulatory effectiveness, careful consideration of the 3 S’s – safety, security and safeguards – needs to be closely examined during the design process and throughout the lifecycle, and integrated into regulatory oversight.

As I have frequently stated, we as regulators must not be an impediment for innovative technologies.

However, safety remains our priority at all times.

As we have seen this year, there is a good story to tell about Canada’s regulatory oversight and management of radioactive wastes.

Federal government auditors recently reported on the governance in Canada of low- and intermediate-level radioactive wastes.

Although disappointingly under-reported in the media and by the nuclear industry, the audit concluded that these wastes are effectively managed in Canada, consistent with international standards.

That may not sound like much, but given the often-misinformed concerns over radioactive wastes and mischaracterizations in the media, especially social media, I think this is a remarkably positive development.

Our federal parliamentarians also studied radioactive waste governance in Canada earlier this year and recently issued their report. 

They concluded that rigour is needed for long-term radioactive waste solutions, with approaches based on transparency, citizen involvement and consultation.

And they recommended that the government prioritize a deep geological repository, or DGR, for high-level radioactive waste, and acknowledge that it is the safest way to store HLW.

This reinforces to me the importance of having demonstrable, concrete plans to gain support for waste management solutions, especially for wastes from SMRs.

Doing things differently

The fact that SMR designs and some wastes will be different is well known.

And some key questions must be addressed:

How will designers incorporate decommissioning and waste minimization into their designs?

What are the plans for decommissioning at the end of their lifecycle, especially for SMRs deployed in remote communities?

Will potential wastes be acceptable for currently proposed repositories, particularly DGRs for HLW?

Where will wastes be stored in the interim, if necessary? What provisions can be made so that waste packages meet requirements for safe transport, storage and disposal?

It is neither possible nor appropriate to shy away from any issues of concern. And it is irresponsible and unacceptable to punt-off answering these questions to “sometime in the future”.

Transport and the transportability of SMRs is another challenge that comes to mind, whether at the beginning or end of an SMR’s lifecycle.

In global terms, the nuclear sector has an enviable safety record over many decades of safely transporting millions of shipments of radioactive materials each year.

However, that does not seem to resonate with everyone.

This issue will be of particular relevance in Canada, where these shipments will be proposed to occur through various Indigenous territories, lands and communities.

International collaboration is a must in order to establish requirements for the transportability of already fuelled SMRs and for SMRs containing spent fuel. On this front, the IAEA has established a working group under TRANSSC, the Transport Safety Standards Committee, and is also holding consultancy meetings to develop a TECDOC.

Serious thought and conversations are required to understand the concerns, to work to address them and, ultimately, to determine what is and what is not possible with respect to deployment.

Here in Canada, we have also heard quite a bit about the possibility of reprocessing used nuclear fuel from our CANDU reactors for use in SMRs, which requires a policy decision from the federal government.

In the interim, proponents and policy makers should be engaging the public and everyone interested to come up with workable options on how and where the resulting wastes from these SMRS will be managed.

For our part, we at the CNSC intend to publish information next year on our readiness to ensure safety in regulating a reprocessing facility.

The socio-cultural reality we find ourselves in compared to when most conventional large nuclear reactors were constructed is fundamentally different.

Transparency and public participation in our processes have quickly become norms and expectations in our respective countries.

Notably in Canada, the federal government is committed to reconciliation with Indigenous peoples, a commitment we at the CNSC embrace wholeheartedly.

And federal legislation was adopted last year that provides a roadmap for implementing the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

In short, doing things as they were done before is no longer an option, and that should be welcome news.

Communities need to see themselves reflected in the leadership and staff of regulators and operators.

The nuclear sector must be committed to and must prioritize advancing equity, diversity and inclusion.

And that is by no means a constraint – we are stronger, smarter and more effective when everyone has a seat and voice at the table.

Conclusion

The potential for SMRs is very clear. Achieving it will require doing things differently.

These new technologies are being proposed in a different world than the one in which the last large conventional reactors were constructed.

There will be many challenges, but they should be seen as an opportunity to do things differently by being more inclusive, more transparent, more anticipatory and more long-term and global in our perspectives.

It is up to industry and policy makers to form the relationships and earn the trust necessary for the era of SMRs to take hold.

Proactively integrating issues related to waste management and decommissioning in the early development of SMRs will demonstrate a commitment to safety throughout the full lifecycle.

Doing so openly and inclusively will be vital in building public confidence and trust in their viability.

Thank you.

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