Could you describe how the Agency supports its member states in developing their nuclear infrastructure?

About 10 years ago, it was recognised that a more systematic and integrated support was needed for countries to develop nuclear power. In 2007, the Agency produced a brochure called Considerations to Launch a Nuclear Power Programme, targeted mainly at decision makers. Later that year, the first version of a guidance publication was prepared which is now well known among member states, the nuclear industry and the Agency: Milestones in the Development of a National Infrastructure for Nuclear Power. This publication provided a more detailed description of a phased, well structured, very clear and simple approach to support member states in developing their nuclear power programmes. This document was updated in 2015. Today, the Milestones approach is used by all newcomer countries and provides a common framework for member states embarking on nuclear power, as well as for those enabling the deployment and structuring of a successful nuclear power project.

What are the requirements for a successful project?

It is not just about signing a contract and making an investment. It’s about preparing for and understanding the commitments needed to build the necessary institutions, including the legal and regulatory framework, and establishing the international relations required for this. It is about countries having a better understanding of what it takes to add nuclear power to their energy mix. To support the guidance to member states on establishing the infrastructure for a nuclear power programme, based on the Milestones approach, the Agency also developed the Integrated Nuclear Infrastructure Review, a holistic peer review designed to assist member states in assessing their national infrastructure for the introduction of nuclear power. The first INIR mission was requested by Jordan and carried out in 2009.

How many INIR missions have been conducted to date?

We have conducted 23 missions in 17 countries and we are actively working with around 30 states considering, or actively implementing, programmes to introduce nuclear power. INIR missions are now seen as a very useful tool for member states to self-assess and to work with the Agency in identifying gaps in their national nuclear infrastructure, by which we mean 19 specific areas listed in the Milestones document. Of these, 17 are soft infrastructure issues such as energy planning, economic studies, legal framework, regulatory framework, building institutions such as the regulatory body and the future owner/operator of the plant, and co-ordination of stakeholders from the very beginning to the commissioning of the plant, as well as industrial involvement, procurement and so on.

How do the INIR missions support member states?

The missions help member states to identify and fill gaps in these areas. We of course do not enter into any commercial interactions as this is a national responsibility. We use a number of instruments, including integrated work plans that we set up together with member states. We discuss across the Agency, with all relevant experts, how to fill any gaps and to support the member states in establishing the necessary infrastructure. This effort is backed by several other IAEA publications. In 2012, for example, the Department of Nuclear Safety issued a Specific Safety Guide (SSG-16) on nuclear safety infrastructure. Similar publications following the same phased approach came later, including by the Department of Safeguards and by the Division of Nuclear Security.

What INIR missions are planned for this year?

We have received five official member state requests to conduct INIR missions this year. In April, we had a mission to Niger. We have an invitation from Saudi Arabia for an INIR mission in the second quarter; we have seen the self- evaluation report and have signed the terms of reference. The team is already working to prepare the mission, scheduled for July. Then we have a request from Sudan, for which we are planning a mission in the third quarter of this year. Sudan has submitted a self-evaluation report, which we have reviewed and we are about to agree on the terms of reference. In the fourth quarter we have two missions, requested by the Philippines and Poland.

INIR missions cover three different phases. Phase 1 is when a country is still studying the options, looking at different implications, getting an understanding of the commitment needed to undertake a stable programme. This takes place before any official decision to go nuclear is made and we offer primarily guidance. There is no significant money involved during this pre-preparatory process and the country may decide that the nuclear option is not for them. This is Milestone 1 – taking the decision. 

If the decision is positive the country will move to Phase 2. This involves institution building and setting up the necessary legal and regulatory frameworks. Milestone 2 is when the country is ready invite bids or negotiate a contract for the first nuclear plant.

Phase 3 is about signing contracts, construction, commissioning and readiness for operation.

Which phases are involved in the missions planned for this year?

Of the missions requested this year, Niger, the Philippines and Sudan requested Phase 1. Poland and Saudi Arabia requested Phase 2. Poland already hosted a Phase 1 mission and also a follow-up mission to Phase 1, and has invited us again. Invitations for INIR missions come from the governments. It is not a regulatory review or an owner/ operator review, but involves all stakeholders in a nuclear power programme. All parts of the Agency are involved in these missions. The IAEA has a long history of very well-established expert peer review services such as the Integrated Regulatory Review Service (IRRS) and the Operational Safety Assessment Review Team (Osart).

Can you tell me about the INIR teams?

The INIR teams consist of experts from the Agency and international experts, who are usually specialists in one or several of the nuclear infrastructure issues. The missions are led by the Agency and include experts from the IAEA Office of Legal Affairs for the legal framework; from Nuclear Safety looking at the regulatory system; and from Safeguards and Security. The mission teams are quite large – about 10 to 12 people.

Are any other INIR missions pending?

We have been closely engaged with the UAE in developing the methodology for Phase 3 INIR missions. This methodology is relatively new – development began in 2014 and was finalised last year. The UAE is approaching the commissioning of its first nuclear unit this year. They were very interested in assisting in this project and actively participated in developing the methodology together with Belarus. The UAE recently requested a Phase 3 mission, which will be carried out in June. It is the first time we have had so many missions in one year. It’s usually been around three missions a year.

The UAE will be the first Phase 3 INIR mission – a pilot mission, as it were. What is particular about Phase 3 is that we will take into account inputs from other peer review services which have already taken place. This will include the results of an IRRS mission that took place in 2012 as well as an International State System of Accounting for and Control of Nuclear Material Advisory Service mission in 2014, an Emergency Preparedness Review mission in 2015, an International Physical Protection Advisory Service mission in 2016, and a pre-Osart mission in 2017. The UAE invited all these missions during Phase 3. This is the longest phase because construction and design takes six to seven years. These missions all took place in a time frame of seven to eight years.

So why does UAE need a phase three INIR mission after all these other reviews?

Engaging in nuclear development is a long-term commitment involving constant and continuing improvements. So INIR Phase 3 will not be the end of peer review missions for the UAE, it is just the beginning. The Agency is not an international regulator. The IAEA’s role is to help member states fulfil this responsibility. But it is a national responsibility to ensure the licences are issued, and it is the primary responsibility of the operator to run the plant safely.

Saudi Arabia is planning 16 plants. Do you take this into account when looking at infrastructure?

Our approach is to help member states build the necessary enabling environment to operate one or more plants. Of course, everyone begins with one plant, usually with two units. Saudi Arabia is a very interesting case and has a two-track programme.

One track is large reactors, and the 16-reactor plan was made 10 years ago following the realisation that continued use of oil resources to satisfy the demands of a growing population meant there would be no oil exports by 2050.

The second track is small modular reactor (SMR) development and technology ownership. Saudi Arabia has entered into long-term cooperation agreements with the Republic of Korea and China on two designs [SMART and HTR-PM]. The Saudis are not just studying the SMR technology but are investing in it. The vision is not just about electricity and water desalination, but also developing some industrial applications and producing industrial heat when applicable.

The third track is development of indigenous uranium resources that are commercially viable.