The nuclear sector has reacted quickly and effectively to the unprecedented challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic without compromising safety, security or non-proliferation, panellists in a webinar hosted by the UAE Federal Authority for Nuclear Regulation (FANR) said. They also considered how to apply lessons learned in the post-pandemic era.
The webinar, Impact of COVID-19 Pandemic on the Nuclear Energy Sector and the Need for Innovation, included Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) President and CEO Rumina Velshi, FANR Director General Christer Viktorsson, World Nuclear Association Director General Agneta Rising and International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Deputy Director General for Nuclear Safety and Security Juan Carlos Lentijo, who examined how their own organisations had responded to the situation.
The pandemic was an unprecedented event in terms of the speed with which it happened, its global reach and the length of time it has lasted, Velshi said. The world’s nuclear regulators have taken similar approaches to the pandemic, but this was not a surprise, she added, given that the nuclear industry is “good at planning for emergencies and adding a layer for contingencies”.
The CNSC triggered its emergency management business continuity plan on 15 March, from which point all staff were required to work remotely, and physical inspections and Commission proceedings ceased. Velshi said the business continuity plan has now been shut down, but physical inspections have resumed and other CNSC activities are “slowly” restarting. “We have not missed a beat in carrying out our mandate,” she said. Some of CNSC’s licensees – notably nuclear power plants – were declared essential services and continued operating, but others – such as mines – have been closed.
FANR already had an advanced IT infrastructure and business continuity plan in place and activated this immediately in response to the pandemic, Viktorsson said. This was adapted in some respects, but the regulator ensured safety, security and non-proliferation activities were not compromised, he said. FANR’s already established “Smart” licensing system for medical and non-power users of radiation has continued working without interruption, he said.
Emphasis has been placed on ensuring the Barakah nuclear power plant site remains free of the coronavirus. This has so far been achieved, he said, and resident inspectors have been essential to ensuring seamless regulation at the site. The initial focus was on unit 1, which is expected to start up within weeks, but work on units 2-4 has now resumed fully, he said.
The measures implemented by governments to protect life and health – social distancing and confinement – have impacted both organisations and their staff, Lentijo said, adding they had affected supply chains as well as the mobility of individuals. Nuclear operators and regulators have shown flexibility and this has so far been effective in ensuring nuclear power plants have remain operational, safe and secure whilst ensuring the safety of workers.
No IAEA Member State has yet reported having to shut down a plant due to effects of the pandemic on the workforce, Lentijo said, but safety and security challenges must be recognised. For example, there may be a need to increase the number of staff certified for certain functions, increase working hours and amend refuelling outages to comply with distancing requirements and supply chain issues. Postponement of refuelling outages, which would necessitate extending operating cycles in some circumstances, would require regulatory licensing actions, he said.
Regarding emergency preparedness and response, many of the same services that would need to act in the event of a nuclear emergency have been overstretched, he said. “The nuclear sector has moved quickly, fast and effectively to implement measures to protect staff and provide continuity of service, but we need to improve capacities to respond to such situations in future,” Lentijo said.
Rising said the pandemic had been a wake-up call on the importance of nuclear energy for continued, reliable electricity generation. “Throughout this pandemic we have been able to rely on nuclear reactors and the people who operate them,” she said. As well as the challenge of working during the pandemic, nuclear operators have had to cope with the added challenge in many parts of the world of an electricity system where flexibility has been jeopardised by intermittent generation sources, as well as falls in demand. This has meant nuclear reactors have had to be flexible and agile in operation, she said.
Some refuelling outages are now being extended whilst electricity demand is lower, but earlier in the pandemic refuelling outages had to be shortened to enable a quick return to service, she said.
The pandemic has demonstrated how critical safety culture is, Velshi said, adding that strong safety culture starts with leadership. The nuclear sector is very good at being open and learning from best practices, she said, and this should be underpinned by building trust and confidence in stakeholders to assure them that this is a well-regulated sector that is managed safely, securely and transparently.
Nuclear safety and security are national responsibilities, Lentijo said, but the IAEA has been assisting its Member States in maintaining high levels of safety and security. It has also provided channels for operators and regulators to communicate and share experience for the benefit of the wider nuclear community, both through its existing reporting systems and tools and through newly established networks.
The IAEA also oversees non-power operations, such as medical operations, and it has been providing special training and advice, including by webinar, on diagnostic procedures, the protection of workers and the management of radioactive substances during the pandemic. It is also working with other agencies to facilitate the distribution of radiopharmaceuticals, which has been impacted by transport issues brought about by the pandemic.
Rising said the nuclear industry can rely on its procedures and routines to ensure it continues to function well going forward, but the supply chain must also be protected. This means considering the possible impacts of cash flow on suppliers and being aware of possible knock-on effects on the nuclear sector from industries, such as the construction and aerospace industries, she added.
Many innovations, both technical and organisational, had already been applied in the nuclear industry’s response to the pandemic, and she called for sharing of good practices and lessons learned, but the most important lessons from COVID-19 would be on the “human” side. She called on governments to consider nuclear power in relation to society. “When governments are looking towards economic recovery, nuclear has a very big role to play,” she said, with investment in nuclear stimulating economic growth and creating jobs.