Remarks by President Velshi at the Canadian Nuclear Society 39th Annual Conference
June 24, 2019
Check against delivery
The regulator’s role in advancing nuclear innovation
Good morning everyone.
It is my great pleasure to be here with you this morning. Thank you to the Canadian Nuclear Society for inviting me to speak at this plenary. I am sure almost everyone here is well acquainted with the CNSC, so I will just note that we are Canada’s independent nuclear regulator and our mandate is safety. Today, over 900 staff across the country work diligently to ensure the licensing decisions and conditions made by our five-member Commission are implemented and respected at all times by licensees.
My intent over the next few minutes is to share with you my views about technological change and transformation and the role the CNSC can play in advancing nuclear innovation.
Ladies and gentlemen, we live in a remarkable era – a time when the pace of technological change keeps accelerating. Traditional businesses are being disrupted – undermined and overwhelmed by new rivals. Think about some of the terminology we use now which would have made no sense even a decade ago: I’m going to Uber to my Air BnB and binge-watch some Netflix. The way we listen to music – completely reinvented. The way we take photographs and preserve our memories – totally different. The way we get around town. The way we book our vacations. All of it has been transformed. Clearly, we can’t make the mistake of thinking our industry is immune to these influences. It’s not.
All around us, we see changes underway. A societal shift toward clean energy alternatives. Innovative new research and infrastructure development in the nuclear field. We are already seeing the use of new technologies and approaches in the nuclear industry. The 3-D printing of parts. Inspections that make use of drone technology. Putting predictive analytics to use for the maintenance of components. A changing world opens the door to ingenuity – and better ways of building and doing things.
Now…what’s all this got to do with us – and our role as a regulator? As head of the CNSC, I see our vision clearly: We are working to fulfill our obligations and achieve our goal of being one of the best regulators in the world. For today – and for tomorrow. And that means being ready to respond to everything that might come our way.
To the extent that it is possible, we strive at the CNSC to be agile and responsive. Our regulatory framework is technology neutral and risk-informed, which encourages innovation and allows us as the regulator to select the best approach for each circumstance. We have a vendor design service in place to review designs well before any licensing process commences to identify any potential barriers to licensing in Canada and allow vendors to make necessary changes or improvements. This service is very popular with small modular reactor vendors, 11 of which are using it at present.
Our performance-based approach allows licensees to undertake innovative projects and research under their existing licences, but they must clearly demonstrate to us the safety of their design – the onus will always remain on them. But, given the innovative changes we are seeing, for which there is no history or expertise for us to draw on in some cases, are we in nuclear, both the regulator and industry, truly ready? We, as the regulator, know that the road to develop innovative technologies is often a long one and are mindful that we need to enable the research necessary to support that development. As the regulator, we have no desire to be a barrier to innovation.
With that in mind, I want to be very clear: Safety comes first. Now and always. We have no more important responsibility, and some may argue our duty is even more urgent in a time of innovation. So, what is the regulator doing to adapt to this period of intense change – and ensuring we are fulfilling our responsibilities to protect people from risk, but not from progress? I would like to highlight five areas we at the CNSC are pursuing.
First, as the regulator, we strive to be as transparent and open as possible. In a time of rapid change, it is more essential than ever that people have as much information as possible – and that this information can be easily understood. People want to know what is happening in the industry, and be assured that we are working with skill and dedication to ensure public safety.
The CNSC’s public hearing and meeting processes are open to the public and broadcast over the Internet. More documents and reports than ever before are now readily available online. Thoughtful public interventions have significantly contributed to us making better decisions on offsite emergency management planning, development of site-wide risk assessments and other matters. But more needs to be done to deepen trust in us as a regulator. That’s why we are striving to further increase meaningful public participation in the regulatory process. And we are working to make our scientific data more open and available to allow for better discourse.
Secondly, we are devoting time to examine how other industries and other regulators are adapting to this era of innovation. I’m thinking about industries like banking, where regulators in Canada and many other countries have proved agile enough to allow the industry to make full use of modern communication and technology – all while continuing to protect the consumer from undue risk. And I’m also talking about an industry like aviation – where we’ve seen a very different story unfold with Boeing and its 737 MAX passenger aircraft.
Two planes fell out of the sky and 346 people died. The entire fleet is now grounded. Investigations are ongoing. No conclusions have been reached. But some authoritative voices have suggested that there may have been a link between an innovative, automated system added to a decades’ old technology and the interface with the pilots. It has also been suggested that Boeing, the licensee, might have played too significant a role in the certification process, principally because the Federal Aviation Administration, the regulator, did not have the capacity to appropriately assess the technology. I have asked my staff to monitor this file closely to identify the relevant lessons for the nuclear industry – and our regulation of it. Just as we learn from and try to emulate best practices, we must also take care to analyze instances in which technological progress may have – directly or indirectly – resulted in safety being compromised.
Third: We need to make sure we have the staff and expertise in place, or the ability to leverage the necessary expertise, to validate the innovative work that is brought before us. At the CNSC, we are already taking steps to ensure we have the skills on hand or in the pipeline. We have recruited over 70 new graduates in recent years to account for our projected attrition and to ensure we transfer valuable corporate knowledge. This also means promoting a diverse workforce by promoting careers in the STEM disciplines for girls and women.
When we empower women, everyone benefits. Here’s what we need to remember: If we are to take full advantage of the benefits of innovation, we need to attract the best and brightest to our industry. The best men and the best women. Impressive people with good ideas. When we exclude – or fail to open ourselves up to – part of the population, we fall short of our potential.
Which brings me to the fourth way we can fulfill our responsibilities: We need to cooperate more closely and more frequently. And we need to do so with a clear purpose. I think it is clear that collaboration is vital, whether domestic or international, and among vendors, operators, regulators and governments. Perhaps the best example is small modular reactors. In some instances, these SMRs are bringing innovation to decades’ old technologies. In general terms, we are seeing that the Canadian public is supportive of – or at least open to – these new reactors. They like that nuclear technology provides reliable power and low emissions. But SMRs will be first-of-a-kind projects – and the public will rightfully expect and demand that they be demonstrated to be safe. Any misstep on the part of industry or by us, as the regulator, and that public support is likely to evaporate.
This reinforces the importance of applicants doing absolutely all the work necessary to be able to demonstrate that the proposed applications of innovative technologies or approaches will not compromise safety. It also demonstrates the importance of the CNSC continuing to collaborate with other regulators, which is the fifth and final area I want to mention. Regulatory sovereignty has a time and a place. It’s important – because at the end of the day, we answer to our own people. But I think it makes a lot of sense for us to share and use each other’s analyses, testing, modelling and research to the greatest extent possible. Take the scenario where a design is proposed for licensing in one of our countries, it goes through the licensing process, is approved or denied, and then is proposed in the other country. Does it make sense in the interests of nuclear safety, consistency or efficiency not to share the information and analyses prepared during the initial licensing review process by the first country?
No country’s regulator would ever be beholden to follow another country’s decision. But working more closely together in this fashion could save time, reduce the duplication of effort and lead to better, quicker and more informed decisions. It could also help foster closer professional relationships between the people on our staffs. And it could aid our efforts to help embarking nuclear countries do so in a responsible and effective way.
In fact, just two weeks ago in Montreal Chairman Svinicki of the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission and I announced that we are exploring potential opportunities to enhance our agencies’ existing bilateral cooperation on nuclear regulatory reviews of advanced and small modular reactor designs. With interest and progress in SMRs advancing rapidly around the world, we both recognize the need and opportunity to play a leadership role to ensure the development and deployment of these innovative technologies are done safely and efficiently.
While we already hold regular discussions with our USNRC colleagues on the status of our SMR vendor design reviews and applications, we envisage being able to leverage even more so the knowledge base which is building in each country. For example, we can attend inspections at manufacturing facilities in the other’s country and plan to include each other in our training programs and workshops. We are also exploring sharing each others’ evaluations and assessments of research. I very much look forward to taking advantage of the efficiencies we can benefit from by sharing our experience.
As a next step, the CNSC and the USNRC will meet to establish a framework under which these activities can occur. We are also continuing to explore opportunities for further collaboration with other regulators. We have a strong relationship with the regulator in the United Kingdom already, including information sharing initiatives, and welcome opportunities to expand it. Given the interest in SMRs, we think it makes a lot of sense to formalize collaboration wherever we can.
Innovation is impacting industries around the world and the nuclear industry is no exception. Oftentimes, these innovations bring attention to questions and concerns that none of us yet have adequate responses to, or have even thought of. But we can never let innovation give rise to overconfidence or inappropriate risk taking.
Think back to the Titanic and the safety innovations it incorporated, which so emboldened the designers that they did not include sufficient lifeboats and led the captain to venture into territory best avoided. Developing and regulating innovation means above all never trying to minimize or mislead on any issue identified that could potentially have safety consequences, no matter how seemingly inconsequential.
I would argue that Canada’s nuclear industry is as safe as any industry in Canada, and we hold you to the highest of safety standards, even though those often do not seem sufficient for some Canadians.
To sum up, these are exciting and promising times for the nuclear industry, and I encourage you to continue to be bold and innovative. Your challenge is to be able to demonstrate to us the safety case and your ability to appropriately manage any proposed application of an innovative technology or approach.
As a regulator, the CNSC needs to be responsive to the expectations from both the public and the industry. The public expects the CNSC to be a competent, strong, independent regulator that engages with the public in an open and transparent way. Industry expects the CNSC to provide certainty in its processes, be clear in communicating its expectations, and regulate efficiently to ensure we are not a roadblock to innovation. We support nuclear innovation, and are taking steps to ensure that we are ready to regulate future innovative technologies or approaches you propose.
I have worked in this industry for more than three decades. I am proud of its past – and our many accomplishments together. But I am even more excited about the future – the opportunities that await, and the potential that we have yet to achieve.
We must ensure at all times that we proceed safely and smartly into our bold new future.Thank you.
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