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Outcomes of nuclear AI regulatory sandbox pilot published

A ground-breaking project by the Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR) and the Environment Agency, which explored the regulation of artificial intelligence (AI) within the nuclear industry, has reported its conclusions.

The final report discusses how the sandbox, the first applied to nuclear regulation anywhere in the world, provided regulators and industry stakeholders with a safe space to consider how AI technologies could be regulated.

Both ONR and the Environment Agency are developing approaches to the regulation of innovation in the nuclear sector, aiming to support the adoption of innovative solutions where it is in the interest of society and consistent with safety, security, safeguards and environmental protection expectations.

AI could be used in the nuclear industry to simulate reactor behaviour and inform reactor design, performance, safety and operation. This technology could have significant opportunities and also challenges for the sector, but there is limited relevant good practice currently available to inform regulators.

To address this, ONR convened an expert panel on the regulation of AI, which identified two applications of AI in the nuclear sector that could be further explored in a regulatory sandbox.

In November last year, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) awarded ONR and the Environment Agency a grant of £170,950 via the Regulators’ Pioneer Fund (RPF) to deliver the sandboxing pilot project. The RPF is a grant-based fund to enable UK regulators and local authorities to help create a UK regulatory environment that encourages business innovation and investment.

The current £12m round is being delivered by the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology. More information on the RPF is available via GOV.UK.

The AI sandboxing work benefited from additional funding provided by the Control and Instrumentation Nuclear Innovation Forum (CINIF) to contract Adelard, part of NCC Group, who supported the project by developing mock safety, security and environment cases.

The sandbox pilot found that the benefits of AI should be clearly articulated, particularly in comparison to traditional technologies, and any risks understood and managed through robust arrangements. Understanding the reliability of AI systems is also important.

Other key recommendations summarised in the report included:

  • Phasing the deployment of AI systems to build confidence and experience;
  • Evaluating whether a principles-based approach to regulation is preferred, to take into account differing considerations for each potential application of AI;
  • Assuming any existing training data is no longer adequate when an AI system is transferred to a new operation or phase, and providing a hazard analysis for each potential deployment mode;
  • Understanding the complexity of the human/system interaction; and
  • Developing skills and guidance through accessing AI expertise, reflecting operational experience, and promoting behaviours that support a challenging safety, security and environmental culture.

The outputs from the sandbox pilot are being fed into existing work on AI within Great Britain’s nuclear sector, as well as being shared with the wider regulatory community.

The project has helped establish the concept of an international regulatory sandbox, which ONR and the Environment Agency are exploring with the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development Nuclear Energy Agency (OECD NEA).

ONR is also working with the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission to write a ‘principles paper’ on the regulation of AI.

This work will help inform the development of a universal regulatory approach to AI, including guidance and relevant good practice.

George Freeman MP, Minister for Science, Research and Innovation, said: “The pace of new technology – from AI in healthcare to drone delivery to nutraceuticals – is creating a huge opportunity for the UK to be a global leader in testing new technologies and setting appropriate regulatory standards, which are key to investor and customer confidence.

“Our funding is supporting 24 pioneering testbeds to experiment and innovate, while helping our brightest businesses in bringing game-changing products and services to market, and it is great to see it being put to good use.”

ONR and the Environment Agency will continue to offer sandboxing opportunities for the industry and nuclear regulators, ensuring an aligned approach to innovation.

Tom Eagleton, ONR’s Head of Innovation, said: “The sandbox pilot has given us the opportunity to develop a new tool to encourage innovative solutions without compromising safety and security or our regulatory independence.

“This would not have been possible without a cross-regulatory effort and we look forward to continuing our collaboration with the Environment Agency to ensure a unified approach to innovation. We are also grateful for the funding we received from the RPF and CINIF, as well as the input of Adelard and our stakeholders.

“ONR is open to innovation, and based on this successful pilot we will continue to use sandboxing as we respond to new technologies and approaches.”

The Environment Agency is also using the outputs from the pilot in broader considerations around the radioactive substances regulation of digital and robotic innovation, which will help inform future guidance and regulatory capability needs.

Jake Surman, Senior Advisor for Radioactive Substances Regulation at the Environment Agency, said: “Our regulatory sandbox pilot has developed a single, joined-up regulatory engagement for nuclear innovations of mutual interest between ONR and the Environment Agency.

“The project informs our approach to regulating innovation and contributes to our future regulation of artificial intelligence in the nuclear sector and in non-nuclear industries that use radioactive substances.

“It has been a truly collaborative piece of work between regulators, industry and the supply chain and it’s great to now be able to share the final report.”