Why should safeguards by design be a global effort?

by Jeremy Whitlock

Originally published in ANS Nuclear News, March 2024


I can't think of a more exciting time to be working in nuclear, with the diversity of advanced reactor development and increasing global support for nuclear in sustainable energy planning. But we cannot lose sight of the need to plan for effective international safeguards at the same time.

Global nuclear deployment has been underpinned since 1970 by the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), making it a key customer requirement for governments to demonstrate unequivocally that the technology is not being misused for weapons development.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has helped verify this commitment for more than 50 years, but it has never safeguarded many of the advanced reactors (and related fuel cycle processes) being developed today.

For that, the IAEA will need to not only adapt its current practices but also work with its Member States to develop new processes and technologies. Advanced reactors may need advanced safeguards, and these take time to develop.

Hence, "safeguards by design" (SBD): It's imperative to talk now with the nuclear design community to ensure that efficient safeguards can be implemented at advanced facilities when they are deployed, without interfering with safe, secure operation (the "3S" interfaces).

It probably seems straightforward when put this way, but historically, international safeguards has not been high on the radar of the nuclear design community. Legally speaking, it's an operator's obligation, and one that has for many years been addressed largely through known measures and processes.

In nuclear weapon countries like the United States, it's not even an operator's obligation, since the NPT doesn't require comprehensive international safeguards on these civilian nuclear programs.

So, we have a massive, expanding global market and a key customer requirement with limited visibility.

But in the end, good engineering design means knowing your customer's requirements. At the IAEA we have seen that nuclear designers tend to embrace the concept of SBD (and the greater "3S" integration of safety, security, and safeguards) as soon as they become aware of its benefit to timely deployment.

The world has handed our industry an opportunity to finally fulfill the full promise of nuclear energy. Let's do this right; let's do this together.


Discussion welcome.

©2024 Jeremy Whitlock

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