Getting SMRs on the map

13 June 2018

With the potential for future deployment of small modular reactors (SMRs) to newcomer countries in the developing world, Anthony Wetherall outlines a proposed approach to legislative and regulatory frameworks that could speed up construction.

A. Introduction

Advanced small modular reactors (SMRs), comprising both evolutionary and innovative reactor technologies, continue to generate interest worldwide. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), globally there are approximately 45 SMR concepts, including water-cooled reactors, high temperature gas cooled reactors, as well as liquid metal cooled reactors with fast neutron spectrum.

These SMRs are at different stages of design and development for applications such as electricity generation, desalination and district heating. They present novel design, construction and operational concepts; being designed with modular technology, pursuing economies of serial production, factory fabrication and short construction times, with some being pre-fuelled (i.e., the fuel is added in the vendor country’s factory before being sealed and delivered to a customer). Some that have been built for local deployment are expected to begin commercial operation in Argentina, China and Russia between 2018 and 2020.

Of concern is how a future deployment of SMRs to newcomer countries in the developing world might best be facilitated. This paper focuses on how to address one of the major challenges facing these countries in nuclear development: that of developing, implementing and maintaining an adequate national legal and regulatory framework, including a competent national nuclear regulatory body.

B. SMR Deployment

Realistically, the IAEA expects the first commercial fleet of SMRs to start up sometime around 2025 to 2030, with large fleet deployment only taking place beyond 2030. This may or may not involve deployment to developing countries. In any case, for such SMR deployment to materialise, a number of issues and challenges need overcoming, not least their economic competitiveness which needs to be weighed against alternatives and be pursued through economies of scale (i.e. ‘Nth-of-a-kind’ (NOAK) plants).

The potential future deployment of SMRs to emerging countries may involve early partnering between the vendor and emerging countries within the framework of an intergovernmental agreement. Subject to significant financial and economic considerations, it could also follow a so-called ‘maximum outsourcing and minimum risk’ scenario further to a build-own-operate model[1], including a competent operator and long-term off-take agreement (a power purchase agreement (PPA). Turkey’s Akkuyu nuclear plant is the first unit being built using this model. Deployment may also include lifetime nuclear fuel supply, return of the reactor at the end of life and spent fuel and high-level waste return. Depending on the design, it will likely involve multiple transports between the newcomer and vendor countries for servicing and maintenance, including spent fuel removal.

These factory-built SMRs aim to reduce lengthy construction times – from 5 to 8 years for a traditional large nuclear plant to approximately three years. SMR deployment may follow aggressive schedules with short lead times (particularly due to serial manufacturing of modules).

C. Developing Countries

Small and medium-sized reactors have long been sought by developing countries, due to many having smaller electricity grids, remote or off-grid regions, less-developed infrastructure and limited investment capabilities. Unfortunately, developing countries are also often vulnerable to political, regulatory and other risks and challenges, typically lacking the experience, skilled workforce and institutional framework with adequate financial and administrative power, accountability and transparency needed for the management of a complex and sophisticated industrial undertaking. They therefore are likely not to be the highest of priority for an SMR vendor.

Yet, advanced SMRs, which only require moderate financial commitment for countries with such grids, represent a more attractive option than traditional large NPPs. Together with some thinking outside the box, the long-held promise of nuclear technology, that is, to play a significant role in providing long-term energy security as a source of clean, reliable and affordable energy that meets growing energy demands for development and provides a basis for sustainable economic growth and improved human well-being, can be achieved.

D. Development of National Frameworks

The economies of serial production mean that the industry in a vendor country must have some certainty over target countries. Yet, building the national infrastructure for nuclear power is a very complex endeavour, even more so for many developing countries. According to the IAEA, the process usually takes 10 to 15 years of careful multi-disciplinary planning and implementation[2]. While some of the infrastructural requirements may be considered as being less demanding for an SMR than for a large plant, it is clear that much will still need to be done with regards to developing national frameworks in readiness for nuclear power, particularly in the case of many developing countries.

In fact, a number of the current emerging countries share common needs, limitations, issues and challenges when it comes to developing the capabilities needed for acquiring nuclear technology. For example, they need to have an agreed national position that nuclear technology is necessary, establish a national policy and strategy for safety, and overcome the financial and economic challenges. At the same time, many of these countries have some common expectations and needs, such as a proven reactor design licensed in the vendor country (i.e., no ‘first-of-a-kind’ (FOAK) plants), support for financing, and assistance of the vendor country’s regulatory body in licensing[3].

A major hurdle is first establishing, and then implementing, a national nuclear legislative and regulatory framework within which responsibilities are clearly allocated and that incorporates the relevant international nuclear legal instruments (such as the Convention on Nuclear Safety[4], IAEA Safety Standards and IAEA Nuclear Security Guidance), as well as international best practice.

In this regard, a key challenge is establishing (and maintaining) an independent and competent national nuclear regulatory body with legal authority and adequate resources to fulfil its statutory obligations[5].

The development of technical competence of the regulatory body is a necessary condition for the safe development of nuclear technology. The IAEA’s competence model is based on a quadrant structure of competences: legal, regulatory and organisational basics; technical disciplines; regulatory practices; and personal and behavioural competencies. To be effectively independent from undue influences on its decision making, the regulatory body needs, among others, to have sufficient competent staff. The four core functions of the regulatory body are: authorization (including licensing, certification, registration etc); review and assessment; inspection and enforcement; and development of regulations and guides. The objective of the four core regulatory functions is the verification and assessment of safety in compliance with regulatory requirements.

E. INSAG’s Strategy for Licensing the First Nuclear Power Plant

The IAEA International Nuclear Safety Group’s (INSAG) strategy for licensing the first nuclear power plant, while ensuring a high-level of nuclear safety, may expedite the licensing process[6].

This strategy uses some elements of prior assessment work performed by an experienced regulator in a country where the reference plant has already been licensed. Still, if core competencies are missing, INSAG sees a mismatch between the schedule for issuing a construction licence and the ability of the regulatory body to undertake a thorough evaluation of the first preliminary safety analysis report (prior to the granting of a construction licence). This evaluation is a major initial technical challenge, the specialized competencies for which typically take several years to develop. While the regulatory body might benefit from external support in undertaking that assessment, INSAG considers that it should carry out its own independent review at the time of commissioning – i.e., no external support should be provided in the review of the final safety analysis report. By that time, at the very latest, the regulatory body must have in place the required staff competent in the technical areas needed to undertake such a review.

F. Proposed Framework Approach for SMRs

The timely development of the legislative and regulatory framework, including the regulatory body and its competence to perform a well-timed independent assessment, is therefore an issue of great importance with regards to SMR deployment in an emerging country. There is a need to ensure that the timeframe needed to develop frameworks is aligned with project schedules, thus avoiding any undue pressure on the new regulatory body while minimising regulatory and licensing risks. This issue becomes more acute in the context of an SMR deployment to developing countries.

With this in mind, and building on the INSAG strategy, a dedicated SMR legislative and regulatory framework package is proposed. This will facilitate deployment, while ensuing a high level of nuclear safety. Such an approach should complement the assistance given (including by the IAEA) to newcomer countries, their regulatory bodies and other competent authorities on issues such as the development of comprehensive national nuclear laws, human resource development programmes and other national infrastructure issues, etc. Some of the features of the proposed approach could include:

  • Establishment of a reference regulatory framework by the vendor country (its regulatory body, other competent authorities and stakeholders) with due regard to the IAEA Safety Standards and the binding obligations that result from the package of relevant international legal instruments. This may well include, as appropriate, model regulations and guides specifying the principles, requirements and associated criteria for safety upon which regulatory judgements, decisions and actions are based, as well as associated licensing processes (i.e., one-step licensing covering both plant construction and operation) and approaches (i.e., goal-setting, performance-based and prescriptive approaches) as appropriately reflected in newcomer countries’ national frameworks. As called for in various fora, this framework would include a general licensing model for SMRs and may also provide the basis for an early binding decision on the project by the newcomer country (government and/or parliament), the pre-licensing of an SMR design and the pre-licensing of an SMR site. Proposed approaches to minimize the licensing risk range from the practical ‘sharing of design assessments’, to the more aspirational ‘international design certification’[7]. A proposed future SMR licensing process may therefore include an up-front ‘module design certification’ step, separate from residual site-dependent licensing issues.
  • The establishment of this framework should be combined with an IAEA review or validation, as well as input from other like-minded, experienced countries (including their regulatory bodies) and other relevant organisations.
  • The use of the SMR reference plant’s safety assessment reports and other relevant documents by the newcomer countries’ regulatory bodies. In utilising the experienced regulator’s generic work on the reference plant, the new regulatory body could then focus its resources on deviations from it, such as the design changes that may be needed to meet site requirements. This approach will be most effective if it follows the same regulatory approach as that of the experienced regulator, but it is noted that this may not always be achievable, given that it is tied to national law.
  • Utilising a dedicated SMR technical support organisation or other such body, through which foreign experts could be provided to newcomer countries’ regulatory bodies (and possibly other competent authorities) in order to address immediate and mid-term needs. The dedicated support organisation could be established, possibly with IAEA involvement, by the vendor country and/or other experienced, like-minded countries.
  • Qualification of these competent persons as ‘staff’ by newcomer countries or their regulatory bodies. This may well be an administrative law issue subject to different national policies based on particular national circumstances. Recruiting such foreign staff should be for a limited time, only while other qualified local staff acquire the necessary competency. For example, the UAE’s Federal Authority for Nuclear Regulation (FANR) recruits some foreign experts as ‘staff’, (including the FANR Director General) in order to meet near-term competency demands. However, its decision-making body, the Board of Management, is comprised solely of UAE nationals and is appointed by a resolution of the UAE Cabinet. The UAE also has an ‘Emiratization’ plan focused on Emirati nationals for long-term sustainability. A broadly-used approach also applied by FANR is to outsource services to an external independent body that provides various forms of assistance, such as a technical support organisation.
  • The creation of an international advisory panel of foreign experts for the dedicated support organisation, with the objective of providing independent and impartial legal, technical and policy advice. For example, the UAE’s FANR benefits from the observations and recommendations of an International Advisory Group on Nuclear Safety.
  • Ongoing support in developing and sustaining the human resources needed for the new regulatory body, and possibly other competent authorities, by the dedicated support organisation, the vendor country and its regulatory body, other like-minded, experienced countries, and the IAEA (see below). The new regulator could also outsource (i.e., contract out) services to a technical support organisation. In doing so, the regulatory body needs to act as an ‘intelligent’ or ‘knowledgeable’ customer, this being facilitated through the proposed qualification of foreign experts as regulatory ‘staff’.
  • The IAEA providing ongoing technical and legal assistance upon request, such as an SMR-focused Integrated Nuclear Infrastructure Review missions[8], Integrated Regulatory Review Service[9] and International Physical Protection Advisory Service[10] missions, generic design and individual site reviews (Site and External Events Design Review Service missions[11]), etc. In this regard, there should continue to be an integrated approach to cooperation with the IAEA which utilises amongst others: the Integrated Work Plan for nuclear power development; the Country Programme Framework[12] for Technical Cooperation; the Integrated Nuclear Security Support Plan[13] to identify and consolidate nuclear security needs; and the national work plan of the IAEA Legislative Assistance Programme[14] to facilitate the development of the comprehensive national nuclear law.
  • Enhanced co-operation between emerging countries and their regulatory bodies and the vendor country and its regulatory body, involving an exchange of experience, practices and knowledge based on the vendor’s long history of regulation. Particularly, due to the need to inspect SMR manufacturing in factories in the vendor country, and the design changes that will occur throughout the SMR’s operating life, it would also still be prudent for the newcomer country’s regulatory body to conclude similar arrangements with other experienced regulators, as is current common practice.
  • Continued active participation of newcomer countries and their regulatory bodies in relevant international and regional fora, conferences, meetings and other events, particularly those providing insight and understanding on various pertinent topics, such as the IAEA’s SMR Regulators’ Forum and the IAEA’s Regulatory Cooperation Forum.

Some Observations on the Proposed Approach

The proposed approach can accelerate the timeline for deployment of SMRs, in particular by facilitating the establishment of frameworks and making available experienced recruits with appropriate skills and requiring less training. If correctly implemented, the proposal is not necessarily contrary to the provisions of the existing international nuclear legal instruments, standards and guidance. In many respects, it takes them into account, along with INSAG’s recommendations, current good practices such as that of the UAE, the utilisation of the reference plant concept, the generic assessment work performed on the reference design by an experienced regulator, and the practice of developing national regulations (along with the processes, codes and standards) by adapting those from a country that has licensed the same type of plant.

Yet, it may still give rise to a number of questions and concerns over potential political or regulatory capture. What limits apply to newcomer countries in benefiting from external support in respect of the national nuclear legislative and regulatory framework? What issues may arise when foreign experts are qualified as staff, as a way of achieving regulatory competence? What are the obligations, responsibilities and functions of newcomer country (and its regulatory body), with respect to establishing, implementing and maintaining the national nuclear legislative and regulatory framework? Are there alternative ways to fulfil these obligations while ensuring that a newcomer country retains ultimate responsibility for nuclear safety and security and its regulatory body fulfils its statutory responsibility for regulatory control? What could be the risks, limitations and constraints of such alternative ways? Further, in what way does the need for an independent regulatory review, at the time of SMR commissioning, intensify the challenges facing a newcomer country and its regulatory body? 

Depending on the level of IAEA involvement (and that of other experienced countries), some of these concerns may be alleviated. However, not all newcomer and vendor countries would be willing to pursue such an approach. The development of purely design-specific regulations may unduly limit the introduction of additional units not of the same design as the first. Some newcomer countries may also wish to progressively develop regulatory competence, and may rely on support organisations and foreign experts, but would not mean the qualification of the latter as staff. Indeed, many countries do not allow foreigners to work as civil or public servants when the purpose is to safeguard the general interest of the state or public bodies.

Further, few developing countries will likely have the same level of financial resources, or without commitment from the government, the same level of support provided by educational and governmental institutions with a role in nuclear sector human resources development as that found in the UAE. Indeed, this gives rise to the issue of the financial viability of such an approach. How feasible is it for the costs to be loaned or factored into an off-take agreement or other arrangement? That said, it is noted that many vendors provide substantial support, some even financial, to the development of the national nuclear infrastructure in a buyer country, including its regulatory body.

There cannot be a 'one size fits all' approach. For example, nuclear legislation must fit into a country’s overall legal and regulatory structure. National safety requirements and methods for demonstrating safety can be very different. Each country must develop its own legislative and regulatory framework based on its own situation, including its constitutional and legal framework, national practice in legislative drafting, institutional arrangements, cultural traditions, scientific, technical and industrial capacities, and financial and human resources. Licensing will ultimately remain a national regulator responsibility subject to national laws, regulations and requirements. Nonetheless, there are benefits in achieving the greatest degree of harmonisation and consistency among national frameworks in the nuclear field. 

In any event, before any significant SMR deployment is to materialise, a number of other regulatory and technical issues and challenges still need addressing. These concern, for example, the development of new codes and standards, operability and maintainability, staffing and security requirements, the size of emergency planning zones and the specifics of non-light water reactor technologies, etc. It is further noted that regulatory frameworks and licensing processes for most of the vendor countries are orientated towards reactor designs that are commercially deployed, particularly, large water-cooled plants. Thus, much work needs to be done and is in fact on-going to streamline regulatory and licensing processes in these countries.


In summary, the technical innovations represented by SMR designs, together with the potential use of alternative contracting and ownerships models to facilitate deployment, mean we need to consider better ways to establish legislative and regulatory frameworks in newcomer countries, particularly those from the developing world. The aim is to facilitate deployment and minimise risk, while ensuing a high level of nuclear safety and security.

On a final note, the above proposal would be separate from issues arising in respect of those marine-based SMRs, in particular the transportable nuclear power plants (TNPPs), and the application of existing international nuclear legal instruments to them. In particular:

  • The need to ensure that the existing international instruments, standards and guidance comprehensively cover TNPPs in view of their technical innovations. Issues arise from the limited scope of application of the Convention on Nuclear Safety, as it only applies to land-based nuclear plants. There is also a need for new/amended safety requirements addressing the transport of a fuelled nuclear reactor, i.e., IAEA Transport Regulations[15], IMDG Code[16] and INF Code[17] - mandatory through SOLAS, Chapter VII[18]. Finally, there is a need for new criteria for TNPP acceptance as a fuelled and tested nuclear reactor.
  • The possible need for a new dedicated international legal instruments or amendment of existing ones, as well as other actions including substantial further IAEA or IMO guidance.
  • Finally, there is a need to consider further issues arising from the interaction of ocean and nuclear law regimes during transport, placement and operation of a TNPP.

Anthony Wetherall is Senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore 


[1] The Build-Own-Operate (BOO) model is where a vendor country builds, retains ownership of, and operates a power plant situated in the territory of the host country and supplying energy to the host country.

[2] IAEA (2015) Milestones in the Development of a National Infrastructure for Nuclear Power, Nuclear Energy Series No. NG-G-3.1(Rev.1), IAEA Vienna.

[3] See IAEA (2009) Common User Considerations (CUC) by Developing Countries for Future Nuclear Energy Systems: Report of Stage 1, Nuclear Energy Series No. NP-T-2.1, IAEA Vienna; IAEA (2000) Guidance for Preparing User Requirements Documents for Small and Medium Reactors and their Application, TECDOC No. 1167, IAEA Vienna.

[4] Convention on Nuclear Safety (adopted at Vienna on 17 June 1994, opened for signature on 20 September 1994 and entered into force on 24 October 1996), INFCIRC/449, 5 July 1994 (CNS).

[5] See IAEA (2006) Fundamental Safety Principles, Safety Fundamentals No. SF-1, IAEA Vienna; IAEA (2016) Governmental, Legal and Regulatory Framework for Safety, Safety Standards Series GSR Part 1 (Rev.1), IAEA Vienna; IAEA (2013) Use of External Experts by the Regulatory Body, Safety Standards Series GSG-4, IAEA Vienna; IAEA (2002) Organization and Staffing of the Regulatory Body for Nuclear Facilities, Safety Standards Series GS-G-1.1, IAEA Vienna; IAEA (2010) Licensing Process for Nuclear Installations, Safety Standards Series SSG-12, IAEA Vienna; IAEA (2012) Establishing the Safety Infrastructure for a Nuclear Power Programme, Safety Standards Series SSG-16, IAEA Vienna; IAEA (2013) Managing Regulatory Body Competence, Safety Reports Series No.79, IAEA Vienna.

[6] IAEA (2012) Licensing the First Nuclear Power Plant, INSAG-26, IAEA Vienna.

[7] See World Nuclear Association, ‘Cooperation in Reactor Design Evaluation and Licensing (CORDEL)’ (accessed 15 May 2018); Nuclear Energy Agency ‘Multinational Design Evaluation Programme (MDEP)’ (accessed 15 May 2018).

[8] IAEA, ‘Integrated Nuclear Infrastructure Review (INIR)’ (accessed 15 May 2018).

[9] IAEA, ‘Integrated Regulatory Review Service (IRRS)’ (accessed 15 May 2018).

[10] IAEA, ‘International Physical Protection Advisory Service (IPPAS)’ (accessed 15 May 2018).

[11] IAEA, ‘Site and External Events Design Review Service (SEED)’ (accessed 15 May 2018).

[12] IAEA, ‘Country Programme Frameworks’ (accessed 15 May 2018).

[13] IAEA, ‘Integrated Nuclear Security Support Plan (INSSP)’ (accessed 15 May 2018).

[14] IAEA, ‘Legislative Assistance’ (accessed 15 May 2018).

[15] IAEA, ‘Transport regulations and provisions’ (accessed 15 May 2018).

[16] IMO, ‘IMDG Code’ (accessed 15 May 2018).

[17] IMO, ‘International Code for the Safe Carriage of Packaged Irradiated Nuclear Fuel, Plutonium and High-Level Radioactive Wastes on board Ships (INF Code)’ (accessed 15 May 2018).

[18] IMO, ‘International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS), 1974’,-1974.aspx (accessed 15 May 2018).

For a discussion on licensing issues see 13th INPRO Dialogue Forum on ‘Legal and Institutional Issues in the Global Deployment of Small Modular Reactors’, 18-21 October 2016, IAEA, Vienna and 6th INPRO Dialogue Forum on ‘Licensing and Safety Issues for Small and Medium Sized Reactors’, 29 July - 2 August 2013, IAEA, Vienna.

For a discussion of some of the legislative and regulatory issues regarding TNPPs, see ‘Legal and Institutional Issues of Transportable Nuclear Power Plants: A Preliminary Study’, IAEA Nuclear Energy Series No. NG-T-3.5 (2013), IAEA, Vienna.

More general IAEA information on SMRs can be found here:

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