From Engineering to Nuclear Licensing Regulation (2:28)
2:28-5:30 (Tristano Sainati discusses how he transitioned from engineering to an interest in nuclear licensing regulation and what regulatory licensing is.)
Q. You are this rare combination of having both a nuclear background and a law background. Where does it all start for you?
A. (2:46) Tristano Sainati started his career in engineering, studying industrial engineering at both a bachelor’s and master’s level, focusing on project management. He wasn’t initially interested in nuclear energy but had the opportunity to complete his master’s dissertation overseas comparing different licensing frameworks around the globe during the nuclear renaissance in 2008-2009. In collaboration with STUK, the nuclear governing body in Finland, Tristano compared the regulatory framework in the United States, South Korea, France, Italy and Finland.
Q: For people who aren’t in the nuclear industry, what does regulatory licensing actually mean?
A: (4:00) Tristano explains that licensing frameworks are specific rules for building nuclear power systems, including laws, international conventions, and specific institutions that control nuclear safety called regulatory bodies. These regulatory bodies monitor the compliance to the regulations, particularly concerning nuclear safety. Tristano clarifies that international principles and conventions are common across all countries, but that each country has their own specific legislation providing different powers and responsibilities to different bespoke institutions.
Two Distinct Approaches to Nuclear Regulatory Systems (5:14)
5:14-12:24 (Tristano Sainati explains the two distinct schools of thought around nuclear regulatory approaches. Bret and Tristano discuss the merits of each and their effects on innovation and competition against other power sources.)
Q: Tell me about some of the differences that exist between these various frameworks.
A: (5:30) At the time Tristano was researching, the most visible difference among the countries was the steps needed to build nuclear power. He explains that in some countries, they have specific steps like getting a license for construction first, then getting a license for operations later. In other countries, they certify the design, then apply for a combined license for the construction and operation of the nuclear power plant.
Tristano expounds on two distinct approaches to nuclear regulatory systems, a prescriptive-based approach and a performance-based approach. The prescriptive-based approach is very detailed, outlining a sequence of very detailed steps with explicit tests to control the safety of nuclear power stations. This is opposed to a performance-based approach, like that of the English system, where the regulatory body is generally open-minded. Tristano explains that this approach doesn’t provide a straightforward test but requires the applicant to demonstrate the safety of the power station with a specific safety case.
Q: Do you find that the regulator in the case of a performance-based approach expects the same things as a prescriptive-based approach or is it truly “you set the rules, you tell us your approach?”
A: (8:02) Tristano believes that the performance-based framework does change the attitude of the regulator in their ability to accept risk, but that still doesn’t mean they are completely open and welcoming as one might think.
The only real example of the performance-based system is the English system as most regulatory bodies employ a prescriptive approach. Tristano explains that the industry sometimes favors this the prescriptive approach because it gives the advantage of reducing uncertainties. The applicant knows exactly what they need to do to comply, as opposed to the performance-based system which is often very difficult to approach. Tristano points out that, in the U.K., he often sees that it’s harder to introduce a very novel technology and approach. More likely, the applicant will try to mirror an example from the past. He concludes that while the performance-based system is more flexible, it is more difficult to prove that a new technology will match the safety requirements.
Q: Bret compares the United State’s NRC contract stating the need to provide “adequate protection.” Does the U.K. system have a phrase like that to know when enough protection is enough?
A: (10:28) Tristano shares that the equivalent principle in the U.K. is the acronym ALARP which stands for “as low as reasonable or practical.” Bret suggests that “as low as reasonable or practical” would put nuclear energy at a disadvantage to other less expensive power systems. Tristano explains the specific measure that the U.K. practically applies in this case. The threshold is met if the technology improves the safety standards, if the new nuclear design actually increases the safety.
Bret shares his initial reaction that if the standards for safety in nuclear keep getting higher and higher, nuclear power will be less economically competitive and less widespread, enabling other technologies which don’t have those same safety standards to exist more. The net effect is decreasing the safety for society. Tristano explains that he agrees with this from a techno-economical perspective, but that the actual focus of the nuclear regulatory bodies are nuclear safety.
The History of International Nuclear Regulation and Its Effect Today (12:24)
12:24-31:32 (Tristano explains how the history of international nuclear regulation began and it’s lasting legacy on how nuclear energy is licensed and viewed today)
Q: Do we know why nuclear went down this road of not looking outside it’s own area when considering hazard and risk?
A: (12:39) If we look at the history of nuclear technology development, we know that nuclear technology was mainly developed for nuclear weapon purposes at the beginning. Further development meant that nuclear became a commercially available technology for energy production, but some countries still used a mixed approach to regulation combining military purposes and electrical applications. He cites Russia as an example of this.
Tristano says that Chernobyl revealed a very big regulatory problem, mainly that a nuclear incident is not just the concern of one country. It is the concern of neighboring countries and to the credibility of the nuclear industry in the larger sense.
After the Chernobyl accident, the International Atomic Energy Agency had a detailed discussion decided to develop safety standards that would work for the world. The licensing process was an essential element of that. The IAEA developed the idea of having a unique regulatory body and a unique operator. The operator would take 100% of the responsibility for safety, regardless of if an accident happened during construction or even as an Act of God to ensure that there was a single point of responsibility and that any future legal proceedings would be clear and fast-moving.
From there, each country developed their own set of legislations that complied with the IAEA standards. Nuclearized countries, or countries that have nuclear programs for civil purposes, all follow these principles.
Q: What about countries that don’t yet have nuclear programs? Do they need to apply the same framework?
A: (15:57) If a non-nuclearized country, or a country that has no energy production from nuclear power, wants to start to develop nuclear power for energy purposes, Tristano explains that the most sensible thing for them to do would be to seek advice from the International Atomic Energy Agency on how to develop their nuclear regulatory body or would start with a proper relationship with a country exporting nuclear energy first. Often, the newcomer country would consider the existing legislations and specific rules in the exporting country and mirror them.
From the IAEA perspective, the main concern is that the safety standards are controlled all over the world because of the effect of the nuclear industry if there is an incident in any country.
Q: Bret shares a moving story about an empassional political official in Ghana discussing his country’s desperate need for energy, saying “if you make this too hard for us, we’re not going to buy solar panels. We’re going to buy coal.” What if a newcomer country disregarded the IAEA standards when developing a nuclear program?
A: (19:01) Tristano would be skeptical, because the country would need the support of global experts. Nuclear technology is not something you can develop from scratch. The main concern of the IAEA would be to ensure there is sufficient scrutiny and safety assurance rather than a competition with coal. They exist just to focus on the safety. Tristano also explains that the IAEA’s main effort is to take a balanced view, not to be biased towards a specific strategy or another. He believes that the IAEA is very willing to support newcomer countries, but they are not responsible for the legislation or the way that those countries develop nuclear, finding that to be the responsibility of the governments and countries themselves.
Tristano believes the real problem here is speed. At the time of Cherynobl, the number one priority was to show that the nuclear industry was a safe industry. To do that, they put in place many instruments but now, if we are in a different phase, where the actual number one priority is global warming and climate change, the speed is essential.
Tristano explains that it’s going to take time to redirect the focus and change the framework because, actually, the framework designed to address safety concerns. Even though the nuclear standards put in place by the International Atomic Energy Agency are not enforceable per se, they in a way inspire and inform nuclear legislations in each country.
Q: Could nuclear energy be part of a larger, combined energy agency or ministry of energy so that we could have a fair assessment of risk across all energy sources?
(23:36) Tristano clarifies that among the key principles of IAEA regulation is the independent status of the nuclear regulatory body.
Q: What is the legal justification for it being completely independent? What are they trying to show when they prove independence, that they don’t have industry influence?
(24:41) Tristano explains that the regulatory bodies need to be able to demonstrate there is safety in the system regardless of economics, lobbying, or political actions. The regulatory body is designed to have sufficient checks and balances and that this independence also keeps the budget for nuclear energy separate. The regulatory body tries to avoid any undue influence from stakeholders or people having a specific interest in the nuclear industry.
Bret challenges the idea that having influence from stakeholders leads to less safety as stakeholders are the ones who know the system the best and are already economically incentivized to maintain safety standards due to material costs. By allowing input from the stakeholders and allowing more flexibility, Bret argues that the industry would innovate safer solutions. It seems to him that we take for granted that independence means more safety, that not talking to stakeholders means more safety, when it might be the exact opposite.
Tristano argues that the basic idea of an independent regulatory body is an organization which has the capability and power to check the system and and have a say, during the construction, licensing, every 10 years for safety reviews and during the extension of a license. Tristano expounds that an organization of this type, serves the purpose of providing checks and balances very well, but is a little bit blind which might have a negative effect on the nuclear industry by being too conservative in their decisions. He defends the system, saying that this conservatism is the reason that they exist, to be very concerned about safety and to ensure that no nuclear accident takes place because a nuclear accident is very negative for the whole nuclear industry.
Tristano outlines the difficulty that an independent regulatory structure would lead to. First, because it challenges this idea of an independent nuclear regulator that provides an unbiased check system. Secondly, because of the potential implications of public opinion of appearing to reduce safety standards.
Tristano calls this an institutional trap. He shares his enthusiasm when he meets with engineers. He finds that they tend to focus on the technical, sometimes the technical-economical issues of the power plants and he begins to buy the power of nuclear energy. However, to Tristano, the problem is not in the technical developments of nuclear but the legal and institutional aspects associated with nuclear technology. Because of the history of nuclear power, the accident, the following laws and institutions deployed, and the culture created by them, Tristano believes the way forward will be very difficult. For him, promoting nuclear power would be more about affecting these legal, regulatory powers than affecting the technology itself.
Changing Perspectives and The Future of Nuclear Through Regulation (31:33)
31:33-42:15 Tristano foresees a challenging road ahead for nuclear regulation, but encourages a shift in perspective, boldness on the part of governments, mass production to reduce cost, and climate change led strategy.
Q: When you discussed promoting the future of nuclear more through legal, regulatory systems than the technology itself, I thought of some conversations with nuclear engineers. They would rather develop new technologies and solve new technological challenges than see a simpler version get built. That’s what an engineer wants, not what a businessman wants.
A: (32:36) Tristano says that, as an engineer, he couldn’t agree with more. It’s easy to be swept in by the technology, chemical, thermal challenges, but that is the engineer mindset. The administrative mindset and the regulatory mindset is very different and that is where, personally, Tristano finds a clash. He shares the perspective he learned while studying law, the idea that the idea of precedence, of being consistent with the specific ruling and the historic approach, is more effective than tackling something on the rational, technical basis. Tristano describes the engineer perspective, the passionate, futuristic engineer able to cope with challenges and continuous change versus the mindset of the administration, focused on minimizing the problem and repeating the action that has worked in the past.
Tristano urges listeners to think about the perspective of the nuclear regulatory body. The regulatory body is responsible, at the end of the day, together with the nuclear operator, for the safety of the nuclear installations. What if there is an incident? It’s going to be blamed. What incentives does the regulatory body have to actually challenge the existing status quo, to actually try a new technology? Bret agrees that the regulatory body is acting in the way it’s incentivized to, but challenges why the incentives are set that way if they don’t serve the purposes of planet earth in the long term.
Q: How did you come to have those two perspectives yourself? Why did you decide to pursue both engineering and law? I’ve never heard of that before.
(36:46) Tristano says it was a drive to be an expert on the topic of nuclear regulation. He believed that in order to be an expert, he needed both engineering and law skills. He believes that his legal understanding is equally as important as his technical one.
Q: So using those two perspectives, how can we untangle some of the trouble we’ve gotten ourselves into? What is the future of nuclear?
(37:36) Tristano believes the origin of the problem is the legal, institutional, regulatory framework that causes problems of budgeting and extra cost and public acceptability. He thinks governments need to be very brave and very explicit in their calls for transformation. Tristano urges this boldness instead of removing specific responsibility from themselves and allocating it to regulatory institutions. He calls for an international consensus, citing the need for a specific agenda to be pushed inside the IAEA to revise some of their principles. He still doesn’t see the value in the independent status of nuclear regulators, but believes it would be possible to amend the nuclear legislation to consider the ALARP approach, the economic consequences, and increase innovation. Tristano highlights the need to incentivize less conservative decision making by promoting a balanced approach for nuclear installations.
Tristano also cites the roadblock of cost, saying it’s too difficult to deploy a nuclear power plant in an affordable way. He supports mass production of small modular reactors, citing programs in South Korea and France that have shown to improve consistently after replication.
Tristano reiterates that taking that approach internationally would have challenges. The nuclear industry is the number one priority for people in the nuclear industry, but isn’t for most governments. He believes that if you want to promote the nuclear industry with the proper agenda, you need to lead with a general problem like global warming.