Office for Nuclear Regulation

ONR's approach to regulating innovation

Our approach to innovation is centred around supporting the adoption of innovative solutions by the nuclear industry and its supply chain where it is safe and secure to do so.

This includes embracing innovation, new approaches and technologies in how and what we regulate, sharing best practice, and encouraging dialogue by engaging widely to promote awareness and understanding. We plan to achieve this by horizon scanning, knowledge management, inspector development and communications, so that innovation becomes part of ONR’s culture and not just something that is added on to our work.

We are open to innovation and throughout 2022-23 are piloting new products that make innovation possible where it is in the interest of society and is consistent with safety and security expectations.

As an enabling regulator, we recognise that we have an important role to play in minimising regulatory uncertainty and burden around innovation. Building on our enabling philosophy, we intend to regulate using practices and behaviours that embrace a diversity of new approaches.

We recognise that there is a need for regulators, licensees and supply chain organisations to be open minded to the opportunities that innovative approaches can bring. A significant part of this is to build on our existing work around enabling regulation to develop our innovation capability and ensure we are open-minded to novel approaches.

We will achieve this through a collaborative work programme, supporting inspectors when they are faced with innovative approaches.

What do we mean by innovation?

We consider innovation as “the implementation of new ideas that generate value”. However, innovation includes responding to stakeholder needs and often builds on previous work rather than reinventing truly new ideas or products.

Innovation is not limited to products and can include new ways of working and new services. The principal benefit is that it returns a value to all stakeholders.

Supporting the adoption of innovative solutions by the nuclear industry and its supply chain

We have developed an approach (see figure below) to make sure our arrangements are fit-for-purpose to assess innovation in the future.

The three products we are piloting during 2022/23 will be available to licensees, dutyholders and requesting parties and their supply chain companies where they are supported by the licensee, dutyholder and requesting party. They include:

Any collaborative activity in the innovation hub must centre on developing relevant good practice (RGP) (i.e. establishing pragmatic benchmarks to enable robust regulatory decision making) and not undertake an assessment of a specific application of an innovation. To allow us to retain our regulatory independence, we have put arrangements in place to ensure that individuals who carry out the assessment have sufficient independence from those engaged in the collaborative activities associated with the innovation hub.

Case studies in innovation

Innovation case study: use of robots and unmanned aerial vehicles at Sellafield

Sellafield Ltd workers operate a UAV on siteSellafield Ltd have deployed robots and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) on their site, as part of their drive to accelerate hazard risk reduction through innovative approaches. This is in line with the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority's (NDA) technical challenge theme of "moving humans away from harm", with the aim of achieving a 50% reduction in decommissioning activities directly carried out by humans in hazardous environments by 2030. ONR recognises the opportunity this presents to reduce risk to Sellafield workers, as well as the need to develop appropriate regulatory processes that enable innovation.

Peter Allport, Head of Remote Technologies within Engineering & Maintenance at Sellafield, said: "UAVs have become an essential tool in supporting routine operations on the Sellafield site for both internal and external inspections. They have helped reduce the risk for our operators working at height and in difficult settings, and we have also been able to develop an augmented UAV capability that supports development and delivery across the NDA group.

Recent robotics deployments in hazardous environments have proven extremely useful in collecting data from cells that were previously inaccessible to our operators at Sellafield and other sites across the NDA group. Robots have successfully entered these environments and moved material into areas where they can be accessed and processed through existing waste routes.

"Our application of UAV technologies sets a new precedent to remotely decommission hazardous environments and accelerate decommissioning programme milestones." To facilitate this innovation and ensure robust regulation, ONR has developed an engagement strategy that enables an open discussion of the technical challenges to deployment of robots and UAVs. The strategy provides guidance on our regulatory expectations and supports engagement in lessons-learnt exercises. Its outcomes have been fed into regulatory guidance in areas including UK Conformity Assessed (UKCA) marking and proportional risk management.

ONR has worked to create a positive environment that enables open discussions with diverse stakeholders including academic institutions, research centres, licensees, national laboratories and other domestic and international regulators.

Paolo Picca, ONR's lead on robotics and autonomous systems in the Sellafield, Decommissioning, Fuel and Waste Division, said: "This engagement has offered a great opportunity for us to draw on different perspectives to achieve the safe and secure operation of innovative solutions at Sellafield. By engaging in an open and transparent manner, ONR and Sellafield Ltd managed to overcome a number of perceived blockers and clarify the regulatory position to enable effective and safe deployment of these technologies".

David Smeatham, ONR's Head of Innovation, said: "It is great to see our enabling approach to innovation being used effectively, with behaviours in both Sellafield and ONR focused on making sure the benefits of innovation are realised whilst maintaining safety and security expectations".

Melanie Brownridge, NDA's Technology and Innovation Director, said: "Collaboration is essential in deploying innovation to transform delivery of our mission. We support and welcome the early engagement on how best to trial and use novel technologies in an effective and safe way in line with our Grand Challenges for Decommissioning."

Expert panel – Regulation of artificial intelligence in nuclear - Meeting one

March 2022

As part of our pledge to embrace innovation, we hosted an expert panel with Advanced Nuclear Skills and Innovation Campus (ANSIC) to discuss the opportunities for the regulation of artificial intelligence (AI) in the nuclear industry.

The discussion focused on proportionate regulation of artificial intelligence in nuclear, where it is in the interest of society and beneficial to the industry’s safety and security. AI could be used in the nuclear industry to simulate behaviour of reactors, inform reactor design, performance, safety, and operation. So, having a clear regulatory approach is important.

The panel was made up of experts from the nuclear, medicine and healthcare, and fusion, national laboratories and academia. Despite the differences between sectors, we were reassured to see that we all face similar challenges. More than half of those who attended said their view on the regulation of AI had changed thanks to learning from the session.

The collaborative work will continue by taking a selection of examples of the application of AI into the regulatory sandbox. The regulatory sandbox allows us to work collaboratively with innovators to test and trial new approaches in a safe environment to develop a pragmatic and robust set of regulatory benchmarks.

Expert panel – Regulation of artificial intelligence in nuclear - Meeting two

July 2022

As part of our work to support the nuclear industry in embracing innovation, we ran an expert panel meeting on the use of artificial intelligence (AI) in the nuclear sector, along with the Advanced Nuclear Skills and Innovation Campus (ANSIC).

The aim of the expert panel was to establish a roadmap for effective and enabling regulation of AI in the nuclear sector.

Jointly organised by ONR and ANSIC, the seminar panel was hosted by RACE (Remote Applications in Challenging Environments), part of the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA).

ANSIC was a Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) funded initiative led by National Nuclear Laboratory.

At the first meeting of the panel, it was agreed to identify potential applications of AI that could be challenging to regulate.

The intention being that these will then be put into the Regulatory Sandbox which ONR are developing.

Sandboxing enables innovators to test and trial new solutions in a safe environment without the pressures of the usual rules applying.

July's meeting of the panel, at the Culham Science Centre, near Oxford, featured representatives from organisations including EDF Energy, Rolls-Royce SMR, Sellafield Ltd, UKAEA and the Universities of Bristol, Manchester and Oxford.

The meeting led to discussion of these candidate proposals, grouped similar proposals together and selected two of them to develop further for entry into ONR’s regulatory sandbox.

Panel experts agreed to work collaboratively to develop the following two AI applications into opportunity/problem statements by licensees and stakeholders:

  • Use AI to derive information from plant to inform structural integrity claims in a safety case to help demonstrate reliability. It is thought that this will assist in the development of digital twins and probabilistic assessment to demonstrate asset in-service operational life.
  • Use AI for real-time application to inform operations and understanding stresses and potential environmental constraints to, for example, optimise robotic movements.