Building New Nuclear: the Challenges Ahead

Written evidence submitted by the Office for Nuclear Regulation (NUC 09)


· The Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR) operates currently as an agency of the Health and Safety Executive. It is responsible for the regulation of nuclear safety and security on civil nuclear sites, the regulation of nuclear safety on defence nuclear licensed sites, the regulation of the transport of radioactive material and the application of UK nuclear safeguard obligations.

· The ONR Chief Nuclear Inspector’s analysis of the implications from Fukushima for the UK nuclear industry found no major areas for concern, but has highlighted some areas for improvement, particularly in emergency preparedness.

· While ONR is making progress towards completion of Generic Design Assessment (GDA) for the UK EPR, meeting project timetables for the Hinkley Point C station will be crucially dependent on continued delivery to ONR of required information to time and to quality by the industry.

· ONR will continue to monitor licensees’ safety cases in order to ensure that any proposals to extend the lifetime of existing reactors do not conflict with their continued safe and secure operation.

· The draft Energy Bill 2012, which is currently undergoing Pre-legislative Scrutiny, includes provisions to establish ONR as an independent statutory corporation. The provisions within the draft Energy Bill aim to provide ONR with the independent status needed to create a sustainable appropriately resourced and responsive regulator for the future challenges of the nuclear sector. The building of new nuclear is one such challenge.


1. In the UK, the nuclear industry is regulated by the Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR) as an agency of the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). Our overarching mission is to secure the protection of people and society from the hazards of the nuclear industry. This responsibility covers the regulation of nuclear activities associated with power generation, fuel cycles, certain defence activities [1] , and research, through to decommissioning.

2. Under UK law (the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974) employers are responsible for ensuring the safety of their workers and the public and this responsibility is reinforced on nuclear sites by the Nuclear Installations Act 1965 (NIA65).

3. We regulate nuclear sites primarily through a nuclear site licensing regime under NIA65. We require all licensees to comply with conditions attached to the nuclear site licence and to operate in accordance with an adequate safety case. By doing so, a multi-barrier approach to preventing accidents (defence in depth) ensures licensees carry out their operations in a way that reduces risks to so far as is reasonably practicable.

4. We are also responsible for the regulation of a number of other areas in addition to our nuclear safety role. These include the regulation of civil nuclear security, regulation of the transport of radioactive material and the application of nuclear safeguards to ensure that the UK complies with its international nuclear safeguards obligations.

5. ONR was established as an agency of the HSE on 1 April 2011 in anticipation of legislation (the Energy Bill 2012) to create a new independent statutory body outside of the HSE to regulate the nuclear industry.


Recommendations arising from Fukushima

6. HM Chief Nuclear Inspector, Dr Mike Weightman, was tasked by the DECC Secretary of State to compile a report following the earthquake and tsunami in Japan last year, to outline areas where the UK could learn lessons from the Fukushima incident. The conclusions of the report for the nuclear power industry were published in May 2011 and on 11 October 2011 a final report was issued covering all of the UK nuclear industry. These reveal that there are no fundamental safety weaknesses in the UK’s nuclear industry, although lessons should be learnt in several areas such as on-site self resilience and national emergency preparedness. Learning from this incident is consistent with the ONR’s regulatory philosophy of continuous improvement and will ensure sustained safety enhancements by all parties with responsibilities for nuclear safety.

Generic Design Assessment

7. Since 2007, ONR has been working with the Environment Agency on the Generic Design Assessment (GDA) of two new nuclear reactor designs: EDF and AREVA’s UK EPR and Westinghouse’s AP1000. GDA allows ONR and the Environment Agency to assess the generic safety, security and environmental aspects of reactor designs prior to construction. ONR will not permit the start of nuclear island construction for a nuclear power station until it is satisfied with the resolution of the associated GDA issues. The GDA process only needs to be undertaken once for each design; putting a design through GDA should speed up the subsequent site-licensing and consents process and provide more certainty to investors at an earlier stage.

8. ONR considers the Government’s indicative timeline for nuclear new build to be reasonable, but it is for the requesting parties (EDF/AREVA and Westinghouse) to allocate resource to the GDA process to ensure that the development project timescales can be met. A number of technical issues remain to be addressed before a Design Acceptance Confirmation (DAC) can be issued to requesting parties, but we are satisfied that the designers have credible plans in place to resolve these. Only when ONR is satisfied that all these issues have been addressed to our satisfaction will we consider issuing a DAC.

9. A key lesson learnt from GDA is that design and safety case development needs to be sufficiently advanced before GDA starts to ensure the generic assessment process is complete before a developer is ready to start construction. The Finnish and French new build experiences have shown that incomplete regulatory assessment before nuclear island construction starts introduces the risk of expensive modifications during construction to meet regulatory requirements. ONR’s approach to GDA should minimise the need for significant design changes during construction and consequential project delays.

The Energy Bill – independence and transparency

10. A key recommendation in the Chief Nuclear Inspector’s Fukushima report was that the nuclear regulator should be able to clearly demonstrate to stakeholders its effective independence from bodies or organisations concerned with the promotion or utilisation of nuclear energy.

11. Currently the ONR’s functions originate from a number of different government departments. The core nuclear safety functions are derived through the Health and Safety Executive of which it is an agency. The nuclear security and nuclear safeguards functions were both transferred from what was the Department for Trade and Industry to HSE in 2007. Finally, the radioactive transport function was transferred from the Department for Transport to HSE/ONR in 2011. Different agency agreements and memoranda of understanding govern each of these functions but in practice, the regulatory responsibility remains either with HSE or the Secretary of State.

12. Under the draft Energy Bill, all of ONR’s functions are pulled together in one piece of legislation making it clear to the nuclear industry and others what is within ONR’s regulatory remit. Additionally, the post of the Chief Nuclear Inspector will be established in statute for the first time. The regulatory functions and decisions of the ONR will be delegated to the Chief Nuclear Inspector to ensure that nuclear regulation will continue to be technically based and independent of other interests into the future.

Overcoming potential barriers

13. The UK's regulatory process for nuclear safety differs from many other nations in that it is largely goal-setting, as is the safety regime for other industries in the UK. This does not mean the UK's regulatory regime is any more of a barrier to construction of power stations than any other country. In fact, the lack of a large number of rigid regulatory rules allows for flexibility and responsiveness in dealing with different designs and in handling inevitable design changes as construction projects proceed

14. The introduction of the Generic Design Assessment process allows for the bulk of the generic power station design to be assessed by the regulators well before nuclear island construction begins, and is a means of ironing out substantive issues at the design stage. This allows for much regulatory risk to be minimised early on, giving a greater confidence that the construction can proceed in a timely manner.  The availability of the GDA process can be seen as lowering barriers to new build in the UK. Additionally, from a regulatory perspective it enhances regulatory effectiveness by influencing designs earlier.

15. A clear risk to any new build project is limited regulatory resource, meaning that assessments and permits cannot be delivered in a timely manner. Any concerns about the regulator being able to deliver its commitments on time could be seen as a barrier to new build in the UK. ONR’s GDA team is on course to meet all of its current objectives, having committed tens of thousands of staff days and, at peak, 60 staff to the GDA programme. However, ONR will need to have an effective programme of recruitment and retention for many years to come given the extent of the challenges ahead, especially to maintain its international reputation as a world class technical based nuclear regulator. This is particularly important over the next few years given its demographics with around 30% of its nuclear safety inspectors being over 56 years old. The creation of the ONR as an independent regulator, outside the civil service, able to set pay and conditions necessary to attract and retain sufficient technical staff, should address any concerns about ONR's ability to deliver in the future. As at present, the statutory ONR will continue to be able to draw on HSE’s valuable experience of successfully regulating recent major construction projects, including the Olympics.

Extending the operation of existing reactors

16. A proposal to extend the life of an existing reactor beyond its planned closure date is a commercial decision for the licensee ( EDF Energy or Magnox ) .  Whatever the decision is, the licensee needs to demonstrate to ONR that what it plan s to do is safe and secure.

17. The licensee must demonstrate that continued operation is either enveloped by its current periodic safety review and all reasonably practicable improvements made or make a case to extend it beyond the extant periodic review period and ONR’s permission obtained. In either case the licensee can only continue to operate with an adequate safety case. ONR will continue to inspect the plant and licensee activities to ensure adequate compliance with site licence conditions including safety case requirements. If at any stage ONR is not satisfied that the station can be operated safely, it will not allow operation to continue.


18. ONR is fully engaged with the industry to ensure that a new generation of nuclear power stations will represent a step forward in terms of safety, technology and legacy. ONR will ensure that any proposals for lifetime extension of existing reactors maintain adequate levels of safety and security.

19. ONR is putting in place much of the groundwork needed to be a more effective, efficient and transparent regulator. The provisions within the draft Energy Bill will provide ONR with the independent status needed to take this work forward to create an appropriately resourced and responsive regulator for the future challenges of the nuclear sector.

June 2012

[1] For example at the Atom ic Weapons Establishment (AWE) Aldermaston and Burghfield nuclear licensed sites , and at licensed dockyards where nuclear submarines are fuelled and maintained

Prepared 11th September 2012