Nuclear fusion regulation: a risk based approach?

Nuclear fusion regulation

Nuclear fusion regulation planned by the UK government is set to accelerate the development and deployment of fusion energy technology.

Nuclear fusion regulation is needed as development of this potential renewable energy source is moving at pace and it could be a major leap forward on the road to net zero. Here, environmental lawyers at Burges Salmon respond to the government’s plans.

In October 2021 the Government published its Green Paper ‘Towards Fusion Energy’ in which it sought input from stakeholders on the future regulation of nuclear fusion. The focus of this consultation was the extent to which the existing regime for nuclear fusion regulation was fit for purpose over the next 20-30 years, whether existing regulatory provisions needed amendment, and how the existing regulatory framework and related policy, needed to evolve as nuclear fusion develops in the UK.

The headline conclusion from this consultation is that the current regulators of UK fusion R&D facilities will remain responsible for regulating all planned fusion facilities going forwards. This outcome will be welcomed by those stakeholders concerned that alignment with the nuclear fission regime was disproportionate to the projected risk profile of fusion facilities and could inhibit development and deployment of the technology in the UK.

In coming to its conclusion concerning nuclear fusion regulation the Government recognised the need for the Health and Safety Executive to develop and maintain the required technical competence, to ensure that future nuclear fusion facilities do not pose an unacceptable risk to human health or the environment.

Nuclear fusion regulation: the next steps

The Government has set out a series of next steps for development of the regulatory regime for nuclear fusion, which include:

Regulatory justification of the technology i.e. confirmation by the Secretary of State that the benefits of fusion energy outweigh any detriment that it might cause, pursuant to the Justification of Practices Involving Ionising Radiation Regulations 2004;

Carving out nuclear fusion facilities from the regulatory and licensing requirements for nuclear fission facilities in the Nuclear Installations Act 1965, through the upcoming Energy Security Bill, to provide clarity on the overall regulatory regime for fusion;

Development of a National Fusion Policy Statement to align the planning process for fusion with other nationally significant infrastructure projects;

Creation of an appropriate third party liability regime, to ensure that any third party costs arising from a fusion accident would be met by the fusion operator without imposing disproportionate insurance costs on operators;

Working towards a formal regulatory engagement process between fusion developers and regulators over the next 2-3 years, to ensure regulatory compliance, build technical capability of regulators and reduce the cost of commercialising fusion in the UK;

Increasing transparency to maximise public confidence in the regulatory framework for fusion;

Considering proportionate and appropriate cyber security regulations, to ensure the safe and secure operation of fusion facilities in line with existing cyber security policy regarding energy infrastructure;

Keeping nuclear safeguards for nuclear fusion facilities under review, to ensure the UK remains in compliance with its obligations under international law and agreements with other states;

Keeping fusion waste policy under review, to ensure radioactive waste produced from fusion facilities is minimised and handled safely and that decommissioning is undertaken safely;

Consideration of further guidance on the application of export controls to nuclear fusion, to enable the UK to export fusion technology and promote best practice to international partners; and

Monitoring the technical capability of regulatory bodies, to ensure fusion facilities are regulated effectively in the future.

The key decision on the UK’s approach to the regulation of nuclear fusion, and the forward work plan set out by the Government, will undoubtedly boost confidence and hopefully provide investors and developers with the certainty needed to accelerate the development of this exciting technology in the UK.

This report was co-authored by partner Ian Truman and solicitor Michael Goulding from the Nuclear team at independent UK law firm Burges Salmon.

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