ASRN Merger: French Government Presents New Bill on the Creation of the Nuclear Safety and Radioprotection Authority (ASRN)

About a year after being asked to revise its proposal for new nuclear safety governance in France, the French Government presented its bill in late December 2023 on the merger of the Nuclear Safety Authority (ASN) and the Institute for Radioprotection and Nuclear Safety (IRSN). The French Nuclear Society (Sfen) analyses the provisions of this text.

On December 20, 2023, the French Government introduced to the Council of Ministers a bill to create a new independent administrative authority: the Nuclear Safety and Radioprotection Authority (ASNR), resulting from the merger of the ASN and the IRSN. This bill will be examined in the Senate on January 31 at the Committee on Spatial Planning and Sustainable Development, and in a public session on February 7. The Government aims for the reform to take effect on January 1, 2025, if voted through.

The Sfen is convinced that the nuclear safety control system’s robustness, effectiveness, and credibility is an indispensable condition for using this energy. As a learned society, it does not have expertise on administrative or organisational issues. It did not take sides in the debate raised during the Government’s first proposal. However, based on the expertise of its safety section (ST4), it deemed it important to clarify the discussion by specifying several key principles during its hearing at the Parliamentary Office for the Evaluation of Scientific and Technological Choices (Opecst) last July.

The new project is based on several preparatory works and consultations

An initial reform project, decided by the Nuclear Policy Council (CPN) in February 2023 and then presented as two amendments to the bill on accelerating the procedures for constructing new nuclear installations during its examination in the National Assembly, was rejected in the spring by parliamentarians. Some opposed it on principle. Many opposed the form, criticising the Government for not allowing them to conduct the necessary consultations and reflections before being called to decide.

The new project is based on the work of the Opecst and its report of July 12. The Opecst had been a major architect in the creation of the IRSN (2001) and then the ASN (TSN law 2006). After a series of hearings in May/June 2023, the Office recommended, with the aim of meeting the challenges related to the new development of nuclear power, to pool the human and financial resources of the two organisations and increase them. The CPN of July 19, 2023, confirmed the Government’s intention to move towards the creation of “a large independent authority for safety and radioprotection with strengthened financial and human resources”.

While the February project included only two amendments, the new project now comprises eighteen articles and addresses the reorganisation’s organisational, legal, and social aspects. It is noted that some articles do not address the reform itself, but the missions and positioning of the High Commissioner for Atomic Energy (Article 12) and the adaptation of public procurement rules to nuclear projects (Articles 16-17-18).

In November, the Government initiated a series of consultations with the Council of State, the National Council for Ecological Transition, the Advisory Council on Working Conditions, the National Council for Higher Education and Research, and the High Committee for Transparency and Information on Nuclear Security.

A reform motivated by the context of nuclear revival

The Government’s reform project is among the essential measures to prepare all levels of the state and the entire sector to undertake major upcoming projects. Among the measures already taken, it cites the establishment of the Interministerial Delegation for New Nuclear (DINN) in November 2022, the adoption in June 2023 of the law accelerating administrative procedures for the construction of new nuclear facilities, and the support provided to the skill development plan of the sector with Gifen. It recalls that the current governance has already undergone several evolutions in history, with the creation of the IRSN in 2001 (whose missions were completed in 2015) and that of the ASN as an independent administrative authority by the 2006 law, which responded to the challenges of the time.

During his hearing on November 7, the President of the ASN stated that he personally supported the Government’s reform to enable safety control to face an “extraordinary context” for the next 20 years, for which “the current system was not designed”. This involves overseeing both the continued operation of reactors beyond 40 years (and possibly beyond 60 years), the construction of new reactors, the construction of fuel storage facilities (in La Hague) and geological storage (Cigéo), and potentially new fuel manufacturing and reprocessing plants. This load will be added to the support of new players who are undertaking the design of innovative small reactors as part of the France 2030 program.

The explanatory statement details the organisational benefits expected from the reform

While all actors recognise that the upcoming workload will put the control system under pressure, several parliamentarians have expressed concern about “changing something that works”, especially a system known for its excellence in control. The bill reaffirms the independence of the control authority. The new entity, including the transferred services of the IRSN, which currently has the status of an Epic, will be covered by the status of an independent administrative authority.

The explanatory statement of the law also specifies that the evolution of organisations will allow to “meet expectations in terms of deadlines and efficiency of the expertise, instruction, authorisation, and control processes”. It is not about juxtaposing current organisations and interfaces, but, within a “tightened” organisation, to:

  • Pool rare skills to avoid maintaining duplicates or dispersing expertise;
  • Better align priorities. It is mentioned that the current double level of priority management, framed by a negotiated convention updated every five years and by an annual protocol, “limits the efficiency and reactivity of the process”;
  • Enhance the fluidity of instruction processes, thanks to a single interlocutor, for both operators and civil society, as well as better sharing of information and data during the different stages.

Article 11 of the project provides that the ASN will report to the Government and Parliament on its human resource needs by July 1 in preparation for 2025 and general for the next five years.

The quality of skills and expertise forms the basis of the relevance of control and the trust it inspires. The bill provides that the ASNR will be able to accommodate all the statuses in force at the ASN and the IRSN. It plans for the revaluation of careers and remuneration. Regarding research, the ASNR, as an administrative authority, will be granted the attributes enjoyed by Epics: positions for researchers, doctoral students, post-doctoral researchers, and foreign researchers; accreditation to direct research; establishment of cooperations, particularly international ones; ability to enter into research contracts, including with industry, etc.

Dissociation and Transparency of Expertise

A recent op-ed in the newspaper Le Monde expressed concern that the project would be “contrary to the objectives of safety and maintaining trust” because it would end the “independence of expertise in relation to decision-making in nuclear safety”, an independence currently ensured, besides the existence of two separate structures, by a legal provision prescribing the publicity of the IRSN’s opinions.

The Sfen had pointed out in February that it is incorrect to think that there would be an irreducible duality between expertise on one side and authority on the other, with the former living in a space free of contingencies that of pure expertise and the latter having to deal with the constraints of reality. This vision obscures the indispensable dialogue and cooperation between the two. Analysis is exercised within a given framework; it is never detached from the decision to be made nor freed from time. Thus, from the beginning, control in France has been characterised by ongoing dialogue (and, if necessary, confrontation) between the safety authority and the operator, between technical support and the operator, and between authority and technical support.

The theorisation of the separation of expertise and decision in two different organisations is not found in international texts and standards. This vision also does not fully reflect the reality of activities. The ASN makes about 2,000 decisions annually and requests approximately 350 opinions from the IRSN. Depending on the stakes, decisions may or may not require expertise or may rely on previous expertise. Besides its regulatory and procedural competencies, the ASN has technical instruction and even its own expertise, which is sometimes very specialised, such as in the area of pressure equipment. It conducts part of the technical dialogue. It can also call on experts other than the IRSN.

Decisions are either made by the general management or the college of commissioners. Today, the College of Commissioners examine and deliberate about forty files per year, those with high stakes. The bill provides for principles of separation between the processes of instruction and expertise by the services and decisions of the college. The authority can complement them “proportionately” regarding its other decision-making processes, which present fewer stakes or rely on less extensive technical expertise.

Addressing Strategic Challenges

Recent debates on the separation between expertise and decision-making have revealed that the line of distinction lies between, on one hand, instruction, expertise, and technical dialogue, and on the other hand, decision-making. Ultimately, the project to create the ASNR (French Authority for Nuclear Safety and Radiation Protection) may be a distant consequence of the establishment of a commissioners’ college in 2006 under the TSN law. These recent reflections and debates thus complete a movement initiated about twenty years ago, also marking a return to the roots when the SCSIN (the precursor to ASN) was defined as a technical magistracy and shared the same facilities in Fontenay-aux-Roses with the IPSN (predecessor of IRSN), both French institutions.

Organisations alone cannot resolve the issues faced by any growing technical body. However, by bringing together the two “houses” that share the same mission of nuclear safety, a long common history, and primarily a technical culture, the reform could provide an opportunity to address strategic questions. This includes dealing with complexities, the risk of losing meaning due to proceduralisation, accumulation of texts and requirements, prioritising issues and tasks, transmitting knowledge and culture, and managing and steering expertise, among others.

Transparency of Decisions

Regarding the publication of opinions, the President of the ASN (French Nuclear Safety Authority) noted in a hearing that France already implements “a richer transparency than what exists abroad,” and he sees “no reason why the volume should be reduced in a more streamlined organisation.” The proposed law stipulates that the internal regulations of the future authority should specify the nature and modalities of publishing technical opinions, depending on “the nature of the cases and decisions handled by the ASNR, the nature of the public documents, and the timing of these publications.” Associations criticised this reliance on internal regulations during the HCTISN’s (High Committee for Transparency and Information on Nuclear Security) opinion on December 3, 2023. The Government believes that the law cannot go into too much detail, firstly to respect the constitutional requirement of what falls within the domain of law, namely the principles guiding public policies without going into the details of their execution, and secondly, to not pre-empt, at this stage of the ASN and IRSN’s work, their concrete proposals for organising the future structure.

The goal is to differentiate between decisions with the most significant impact that require public consultation, long-term technical files with regular updates on knowledge advancement, and, at the other end of the spectrum, routine decisions, such as changes in operational rules.

The Sfen (French Society for Nuclear Energy), a scholarly society, believes that transparency, which guarantees independence, will gain clarity by having a single conductor organising it. The same applies to the “dialogue with civil society.” Beyond communicating its decisions and their technical motivations, the ASNR should continue to publish technical information documents on safety and reference works, as has been done by the IRSN (French Institute for Radiological Protection and Nuclear Safety) for years. ■

By Sfen

Photo: from left to right Jean-Christophe Niel, Director General of IRSN, Olivier Gupta, Director General of ASN, Bernard Doroszczuk, Chairman of ASN.