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Webinar – What are the key risk and regulatory concerns for nuclear fusion?

On 22 April 2021, NRI continued its webinar series, ‘Frontiers in Nuclear Insurance’, by hosting ‘Nuclear Risk and Regulation Update, plus Future Considerations for Fusion’, the series’ second event. The webinar was attended by more than 130 representatives of the nuclear and insurance industry worldwide.

Chris Lambert, Director at the Westminster Energy Forum and adviser to NRI, chaired the event and opened proceedings with a brief overview of why COP26 is a pivotal moment in the history of global fossil fuel emissions. He explained that the massive growth in electricity demand needed to decarbonise the heat and transport sectors called for a huge increase in nuclear capacity, particularly in emerging economies where six-fold energy growth is required. 

NRI and Nuclear Industry Association (NIA) Chairman Dr Tim Stone followed by pointing out that existing policy won’t be enough to realise this change. He argued that time is of the essence and markets alone cannot be relied upon to deliver the necessary progress. Dr Stone felt that governments had to start seriously considering now the nature of the world’s ideal energy system in 2050 and work backwards from there in order to fully understand the roadmap needed to guide the world to that destination and at the appropriate scale. 

Dr Mina Golshan, Deputy Chief Inspector and Director at the Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR), then addressed the ONR’s current challenges. Chief among these was decommissioning, which she revealed may be handled by a separate organisation in the future. Dr Golshan also highlighted the ONR’s need to keep abreast of technological developments so that, for example, it can simplify the regulatory burden for designers of SMRs/AMRs. 

The remainder of the webinar focused on the current state of nuclear fusion and regulatory requirements, inviting four speakers with particular insight to offer their views on the topic. 

Paul Methven, Director of STEP at UK Atomic Energy Authority, stressed that the UK will only remain a world leader in fusion if a number of criteria are satisfied: it needs to be the most attractive country in the world for fusion research and delivery; it should offer a supportive regulatory and operating environment; and the government should be vocal about fusion, support exports of fusion equipment and develop a policy that includes fusion as a low-carbon part of the energy mix. 

Giving his personal opinion on the regulation of fusion, Prof. Laurence Williams, from the Centre for Nuclear Engineering at Imperial College London, outlined the issues caused by fusion not currently being covered by a specific regulatory framework. Aside from the challenges for developers and operators, he also underlined investor concerns about fusion being linked to nuclear safety regulation even though it presents far less of a safety risk than fission. Prof. Williams felt that non-nuclear regulators have the capability to regulate fusion power plants, but will need greater technical skills and training to do so. This is vital, as the industry needs to be able to explain the hazards as transparently as possible in order to instil public confidence in fusion as a technology. 

Stéphane Calpena, Safety & Quality Department Deputy Head at ITER, provided his perspective on the safety of fusion. He delineated the extent of the safety risks posed by a number of substances typically found in fusion reactors and concluded by stating that none of them were any higher than the radiation levels usually encountered during “a day’s skiing in the Alps”. Mr Calpena explained why, in the case of ITER, it had been important for it to be classified as a nuclear licensed site and to fall within the scope of the OECD’s Paris Convention. This enabled ITER to provide confidence to the public, as part of ITER’s social licence responsibilities.

The webinar was wrapped up by Gianluca Pisanello, Chief Operating Officer at First Light Fusion, who emphasised the need for fusion to produce as many GWs of output as possible, especially during the 2040s when it is likely to be most required. For Mr Pisanello, fusion is more of a revolutionary technology than simply a disruptive one and he argued for a proportionate approach to regulation across different fusion technologies. 

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