On the surface, nuclear regulation within the UK appears to be a complicated web of acts, laws, regulatory bodies and acronyms. Hopefully, this breakdown will help to demystify this important aspect of our nuclear and radiological industries.


In order to regulate an industry, there needs to be rules which govern the activities and there needs to be accountability to these rules by means of an independent regulator. For the civil nuclear industry there is quite an extensive legal framework spread across multiple acts, including but not limited to: the Energy Act 2013; the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 of which the Ionising Radiations Regulation 2017 are a subset of; the Nuclear Installations Act 1965 which defines site license conditions, and; the Nuclear Industries Security Regulations 2003.  There are also regulatory requirements from international obligations.


The Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR) is the principal regulator for the nuclear industry, covering the lifetime of nuclear sites from design to decommission as well as transport of nuclear material beyond these sites. The ONR was established in statute (that is, by law) in the Energy Act of 2013 and reports to government, accountable to the public. The remit of the ONR is to cover regulation of nuclear safety, conventional safety on nuclear sites (usually the domain of the Health and Safety executive), nuclear security, safeguarding of nuclear material, and transport of nuclear material; which are covered by the legislation listed above. Key activities of the ONR are the granting of permissions for nuclear activities, particularly by means of site licenses for nuclear installations, and inspections for compliance. The ONR inspectors have enforcement authority and can issue improvement notices, prohibition notices and bring prosecution cases under criminal law for cases of non compliance. The ongoing case regarding contamination of a worker at Sellafield Ltd [1] is the first time the ONR has used its power of prosecution since its establishment. As well as ensuring compliance during everyday operations, the ONR also determines the scope of areas that require emergency planning arrangements as per the Radiation (Emergency Preparedness and Public Information) Regulations (REPPIR) 2001. Aspects arising under the Nuclear Industries Security Regulations 2003, such as the physical security of nuclear material or the security of sensitive information, are also handled by the ONR in the Civil Nuclear Security division.

Fig 1. Venn diagram of legislation (blue boxes) and enforcing regulatory bodies.

Regulation of nuclear sites is not the sole domain of the ONR. The Environment Agency, Natural Resources Wales and the Scottish Environment Protection Agency have jurisdiction over environmental protection on nuclear sites. These agencies work closely with the ONR and have their own regulatory functions. These agencies enforce laws by means of regulation with regard to environmental and human health, covered by the Environmental Permitting Regulations (in England and Wales) or the Radioactive Substances Act (in Scotland). This regulation not only covers radiological activities, but all the other activities associated with the industry that may occur on the sites. Where the ONR regulates the accumulation of radioactive wastes, the various environment agencies regulate the disposal and discharge of radioactive wastes. These regulators would also be consulted under the REPPIR 2001 arrangements.


Regulatory protocols also arise from the UK’s international obligations. At the time of writing, the UK is a European Atomic Energy Community (Euratom) member and is subject to Commission Regulation (Euratom) 302/2005 requiring safeguarding reporting arrangements. The UK is also a signatory on the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) and by extension, is subject to IAEA regulation. The UK entered into a voluntary safeguarding agreement with the IAEA and Euratom in 1978 in order to adhere to safeguarding measures as per the standards of the IAEA comprehensive safeguards agreements most countries are subject to. These regulations require the reporting of civil nuclear facilities including basic design information as well as nuclear materials accountancy. Fulfilling these regulatory requirements is facilitated by the ONR and provided to the European Commission on behalf of Euratom and the IAEA.


The relationship between the regulatory bodies and the legislation they enforce can be seen in figure one. While not exhaustive, this hopefully provides some insight into how the nuclear industry maintains its high standards of security and safety; and the laws which protect our nuclear workers and the environment.


[1] http://news.onr.org.uk/2018/05/onr-to-prosecute-sellafield-ltd/

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