What’s next for ONR?22 April 2021
The Office for Nuclear Regulation has stepped up as a UK’s nuclear safeguards regulator post-Brexit, Rumyana Vakarelska reports
FOLLOWING THE UK’S EXIT FROM the EU and from Euratom, the Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR) the UK’s nuclear regulator, is adding a role as the UK’s national nuclear safeguards authority to its responsibilities.
The UK’s membership of Euratom, which operates alongside the EU, predated its membership of the EU but ended at the same time as Brexit. The UK has to manage an independent safeguards regime.
The ONR is now in charge of the domestic safeguards regime and operating the UK State System of Accountancy for, and Control of, Nuclear Materials (SSAC).
“This has been a major project for ONR, setting up a new team, new systems and new processes, led by Dr Mina Golshan, ONR’s deputy chief inspector and director of ONR’s Sellafield, Decommissioning, Fuel and Waste Division”, says the ONR.
“Since we were initially tasked by government to establish a domestic safeguards regime after Brexit, we have developed a team of safeguards specialists, including inspectors and nuclear material accountants, and implemented a bespoke IT system, the Safeguards Information Reporting and Management System (SIMRS)”, it says.
Nuclear safeguards are measures to verify that countries comply with their international obligations not to use nuclear materials from their civil nuclear programmes to manufacture nuclear weapons. These safeguards are aligned with IAEA standards and requirements.
The UK’s new domestic safeguards regime operates under the UK’s 2018 Nuclear Safeguards Act, which came into force on the UK’s departure from Euratom on 31 December 2020. It prohibits the use of nuclear materials from the UK’s civil nuclear programme from being used for nuclear weapons.
Safeguards “remains a key priority for ONR and sits in its Civil Nuclear Security and Safeguards Division,” ONR says.
A Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) was signed by the UK and the European Union on 24 December 2020.
The TCA agreement was passed by both Houses in the UK parliament on 30 December, and by the European Parliament. The TCA came into effect on 1 January 2021 and covers energy issues such as trading between the UK and EU.
Eric White, senior Consultant in Herbert Smith’s Brussels office said, 7 January, in the law firm’s first overview of the TCA that “the agreement is about how to manage divergence, while multiple governance review mechanisms will be reviewed in the years to come, but certainly in about four years time.
“Moreover, the UK’s energy contract with the EU has to be renewed every year as the UK imports 70% of its energy from Europe. The agreement is unfinished business and my main area of concern is the implementation of the agreement”, he said.
As for UK civil nuclear policy, that falls within the remit of the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS). BEIS has overarching policy responsibility for the implementation of relevant international agreements with international partners, and provides recommendations on export licence applications with respect to nuclear materials and items.
The UK and Euratom have now signed a Nuclear Cooperation Agreement (NCA), alongside the general Trade and Cooperation Agreement.
The UK-Euratom NCA will facilitate cooperation within the civil nuclear sector and the public, including safeguards, safety and security. It provides a framework for trade in nuclear materials and technology, facilitates research and development, and enables exchange of information and expertise, including on medical radioisotopes.
NCAs are only a requirement for civil nuclear trade when a country has a domestic legal or policy requirement for an NCA to be in place. Although most countries do not require NCAs, four of the UK’s major trading partners do: Australia, Canada, Japan and the US. These bilateral agreements have now been signed.
The UK already had bilateral NCAs with China, India, Jordan, Republic of Korea, Russian Federation and the United Arab Emirates. It also had a bilateral agreement with Japan which now complements the new NCA above.
Some countries, including Argentina, Kazakhstan, South Africa, Ukraine and Uzbekistan, do not have a legal or policy requirement for an NCA to be in place, so the UK can continue to trade with these countries without an NCA.
The NCA agreements may also facilitate UK SMR and AMR design and licence applications between countries where such agreements exist.
The UK ensures any exports of relevant items are done in accordance with Nuclear Suppliers Group guidelines. These four NCAs are Relevant International Agreements allowing civil nuclear trade, and there are requirements for ongoing reporting for the purposes of section 112(1A) of the Energy Act 2013 through the Nuclear Safeguards (Fissionable Material and Relevant International Agreements) (EU Exit) Regulations 2019.
Later in 2021 ONR is planning a restructuring, including combining the chief nuclear inspector and chief executive roles.
“These changes in the organisation will align ONR’s leadership structure to other nuclear regulators around the world, with a new combined post of chief nuclear inspector and of chief executive and will not change its relationship with licensees or internationally”, according to an ONR spokesperson.
Chief Nuclear Inspector Mark Foy is expected to take up the new combined post, subject to detailed government approvals, supported by current Deputy Chief Executive, Sarah High. A new senior regulatory role, Executive Director of Operations/Deputy Chief Inspector, will be established.
Under existing contractual arrangements, current Chief Executive Adrie`nne Kelbie will step down as her extended term of office comes to an end in January 2022, ONR says.
Prospective licence applications
In July 2020, ONR received £5 million funding from BEIS to support next generation nuclear technology, including SMRs and AMRs. “We are also participating in international forums and bilateral international engagements to contribute to and learn from our global counterparts, who are currently evaluating a number of Small Modular Reactor (SMR) and AMR designs”, said an ONR spokesperson.
One potential UK small reactor project is Shearwater Energy’s proposed SMR, wind and hydrogen development at Wylfa in Wales for which NuScale Power and Shearwater signed a memorandum of understanding on 15 January 2021.
NuScale will support Shearwater in conducting project-specific engineering, planning, and licensing activities for their SMR technology.
NuScale’s assessment of the UK supply chain concluded that more than 75% of the content of a NuScale reactor
in the UK could be sourced within the UK. However, the reactor has not been submitted into the ONR’s Generic Design Acceptance process.
According to ONR, the COVID-19 pandemic has had no impact on its activities.
“ONR inspectors have continued to go to nuclear facilities to conduct essential regulatory business, in accordance with public health measures, doing a considerable number of site visits in person over recent months, following a pause during the early days of the pandemic in 2020 where a number of our inspections were carried out remotely”, said an ONR spokesperson. “As COVID-19 restrictions change, our focus is on the preparedness for the weeks and months ahead and maintaining safe and secure operations”.
Author details: Rumyana Vakarelska is a Journalist covering the energy and environmental sectors