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ONR successful in Regulators’ Pioneer Fund application

The Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR) has been awarded government funding for its first-of-a-kind regulatory sandboxing in the nuclear industry.

The project will pilot a nuclear regulatory sandbox process of artificial intelligence (AI), a technology with the potential for significant safety, security and environmental benefits within the industry.

Sandboxing is when regulators and industry work together in a non-regulatory environment to explore how innovative proposals can progress to deployment.

Working in partnership with the Environment Agency, AI has unique challenges which will now be explored in the safe space of a regulatory sandbox.

This project has been made possible by a grant from the £12m Regulators’ Pioneer Fund (RPF) launched by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS).

The fund enables UK regulators and local authorities to help create a UK regulatory environment that unleashes innovation and makes the UK the best place to start and grow a business.

AI, an area being explored by ONR and the Environment Agency as part of their enabling approaches to innovation, could be used in the nuclear industry to simulate behaviour of reactors, and inform reactor design, performance, safety and operation.

Done effectively, innovative technologies have the potential to reduce the costs of nuclear sector projects and contribute to continued low carbon energy supply, for example, AI-informed maintenance programmes to minimise costs associated with unplanned outages.

ONR's groundbreaking regulatory sandbox proactively demonstrates that it is open to innovation and promotes a culture that supports the adoption of innovation where it is of benefit to society and the environment.

Using the £170,950 grant, ONR will work closely with the Environment Agency as two of the principal regulators of UK nuclear sites to deliver this project, engaging with experts and stakeholders on innovation including nuclear industry licensees, national laboratories, other highly regulated sectors and academia.

Within the regulatory sandbox, AI could also be used to ensure appropriate and targeted plant maintenance and inform the safe operability of robots in constrained spaces and avoid failure due to machine stress.

This pilot is also influenced by economic, social and political challenges including reducing costs of nuclear new build and decommissioning.

David Smeatham, Innovation Lead at ONR, said: "The success of our RPF bid will allow ONR to work positively with the nuclear sector and collaborate with experts in other sectors to develop a framework for the regulation of AI and to trial an approach to regulatory sandboxing.

"This is the first application of a regulatory sandbox by nuclear regulators in the UK.

“It's an exciting opportunity for ONR and the whole of the nuclear sector."

Jake Surman, Senior Advisor RSR Research, Development & Innovation Lead, said: "We recognise innovation as not only an important driver of economic growth, but also in moving towards a low carbon, circular economy, with improved environmental protections.

"We are committed to working with innovators to help support and enable innovation, whilst ensuring continued protection of people and the environment.”

The government judging panel felt the ONR and Environment Agency application 'was a strong proposal that clearly explained the motivations and evidence to support why AI work is necessary, as well as detailing work that had already take place, making clear links to net zero and energy security with a clear project plan and work packages.'

As part of its ongoing innovation work, ONR has organised two expert panels on AI in the nuclear sector during the past year to share information and regulatory perspectives, comprising of representatives from nuclear, medicine and healthcare, fusion, national laboratories and academia.

All were in strong support to pilot regulatory sandboxing of AI.

One nuclear site operator said in feedback: "Well done to ONR for taking the lead. It’s recognised as exemplar in the technology advancement arena."

The pilot of a regulatory sandbox will build on existing strengths in areas such as Cumbria, where the government has invested in robotics at Sellafield and in its supply chain.

ONR and the Environment Agency will be working with licensee organisations, academics and other regulators who have already committed to produce sample safety, security and environmental cases that propose the use of AI for nuclear purposes to enter the ONR’s regulatory sandbox.