- Nuclear reactors have a key role to play in many countries in ensuring that electricity supplies are maintained during the COVID-19 crisis.
- Reactor operators are taking steps to protect their workforce and are implementing business continuity plans to ensure the continuing functioning of key aspects of their businesses.
- Operations are being halted at some facilities where necessary or deemed appropriate to prevent the spread of the virus and protect workers.
- Nuclear technologies are also being used to detect and fight the virus.
Nuclear energy’s role in maintaining electricity supplies
Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) is an infectious disease caused by the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2). The global pandemic has required dramatic action to be taken in all aspects of life worldwide.
Maintaining reliable electricity supplies and ‘keeping the lights on’ is vital. Nuclear generation supplies around 10.5% of electricity worldwide and contributes to electricity generation in over 30 countries. In many countries nuclear employees have been identified as among the key workers that are essential to maintaining important infrastructure.
Nuclear generation has two characteristics that will assist in maintaining supplies. Firstly, in most reactors, fuel assemblies are used for around three years. There is therefore greater security of supply than for fossil fuel plants, which require a constant feed of coal or gas. Reloads of fuel take place every 12-18 months and operating companies are developing strategies to focus on refuelling during outages to reduce the number of staff required. Secondly, nuclear reactors operate with high capacity factors, providing a more reliable, constant supply than some intermittent renewables, such as wind and solar.
Nevertheless, all forms of electricity generation will need to take action to ensure continued operation. In addition, it will also be necessary to maintain the distribution network, including electricity grids.
Responses to protect workers and ensure continued operations
The nuclear industry is taking action in response to the global COVID-19 pandemic caused by the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus to protect workers and reduce transmission of the virus. A strong safety culture already exists in the nuclear industry worldwide.
Actions taken depend on the guidance and directives implemented in different countries and regions. The fact that the virus first affected the Wuhan region of China some weeks before becoming a global pandemic has meant that companies elsewhere in the world have been able to implement business continuity plans and prepare for the impacts of the virus.
Measures to screen workers and detect those who may have the virus include temperature checks to identify fever, a common symptom of COVID-19.
In countries where it is advised or required, remote working has been implemented for those staff not required to work on-site. This reduces the number of staff on-site, which can help in implementing social distancing measures. Other ways to enhance social distancing include staggering staff meal breaks to reduce the number of staff using canteens at the same time or staggering the start and end of shifts to reduce the number of staff arriving / leaving at the same time.
Companies are also restricting or cancelling non-essential business travel and using conference video and audio calls for meetings, even for those employees still working on-site.
To ensure the health of key workers in areas where the incidence of COVID-19 may increase significantly, other measures that are being considered include changing shift patterns. Additionally, some companies are making preparations by securing supplies of food, beds and other essentials to allow workers to stay on-site to minimize their contact with others in the event that this is required. Key nuclear plant staff may also stay in dedicated accommodation and travel to and from site in separate transportation.
In addition, the importance of maintaining high levels of hygiene, staying at home and maintaining social distancing away from work will be as high for nuclear workers as it is for everyone.
Managing the impacts of COVID-19 on all areas of nuclear industry operations
In many countries operations in different parts of the nuclear industry are, at present, continuing. However, depending on the situation with COVID-19 where they are located, operations not vital to ensuring the continued operation of nuclear power plants may be reduced or stopped.
Kazatomprom, Kazakhstan’s state-owned uranium production company – which produced 40% of the world’s primary uranium in 2018 – has announced that it will draw on its existing inventory of uranium should its mining operations be affected. Its uranium mining sites are primarily in remote areas in the southern regions of Kazakhstan and to date the pandemic has had no impact on its operations. However, the remoteness of those sites requires that production, maintenance, catering and support staff stay on site and live in close quarters while at work. COVID-19 could pose a significant health and safety concern if an outbreak were to occur in such a setting.
At the Cigar Lake uranium mine in northern Saskatchewan, Canada, production is being temporarily suspended and the facility in being placed in safe care and maintenance mode during the COVID-19 pandemic. This will reduce the workforce on site from around 300 to 35, enabling improved physical distancing and enhanced safety precautions. In addition, production is being suspended at the McClean Lake uranium mill, where ore from Cigar Lake is normally processed.
At the Bruce nuclear power plant activities on the the Major Component Replacement project, which will extend the operating life of the plant, have been narrowed to essential tasks to allow Bruce Power to focus on generating electricity and production of cobalt-60 for medical sterilization.
The reduction in industrial and other activity in countries taking countermeasures against COVID-19 is reducing overall electricity demand. In China some reactors reduced their power output according to the requirements of the grid. As countermeasures are gradually lifted plants are returning to full power.
The Ascó I nuclear plant in Tarragona and Almaraz I in Cáceres, Spain, have announced the rescheduling of their outages for fuel loading.
Activities on construction sites are being reduced or stopped and new working practices introduced. At the Hinkley Point C plant under construction in the UK staff numbers have been reduced by more than half and will be reduced further as work in progress is completed.
Continuation of work at Rosatom’s overseas construction projects are guided by the recommendations of the disease control services and governments of the respective countries in which construction is taking place.
Work was halted on some reactors under construction in China in response to the COVID-19 virus. As work gradually resumes, countermeasures are being introduced for the employees returning to site.
Waste Management and Decommissioning
At the Sellafield site in Cumbria, UK, the Magnox reprocessing plant has been closed down as a precaution to better prepare it for restart. The Magnox reprocessing plant treats fuel that was used in the UK Magnox reactors, the first generation of reactors used in the country. These reactors were already closed having reached the end of their operational life, and the Magnox reprocessing plant was already due to close in 2020, so this will have no impact on the operation of the UK’s AGR and PWR reactors. In the north-west of France operations at the La Hague reprocessing plant have also been suspended.
A number of inspectors from UK’s regulator, ONR, will continue to travel to sites where required but as much business as possible will be carried out by phone, email and Skype. France’s regulator, ASN, is removing non-essential direct physical contact to limit the spread of the virus and giving priority to the control of operating facilities.
Nuclear technology to help combat COVID-19
Nuclear technologies have medical applications that will help combat COVID-19. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is providing diagnostic kits, equipment and training in nuclear-derived detection techniques to countries asking for assistance in tackling the worldwide spread of the novel coronavirus causing COVID-19. The assistance, requested by 14 countries in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean, is part of intensified global efforts to contain infections.
In China, industrial irradiation facilities were made available for the treatment of medical supplies, not only to destroy the coronavirus, but also to disinfect and sterilize medical supplies to remove any other virus or bacteria.
In addition, maintaining the operation of reactors used for the preparation of medical isotopes will allow for the continued use of these vital materials for the diagnosis and treatment of other illnesses.