Despite the COVID-19 crisis, all 442 of the world’s nuclear power reactors are operational, providing more than 10% of the world’s electricity. Nuclear facility operators around the world are taking special measures to protect the health of their workforce to ensure continuous operations during the pandemic.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is accelerating its efforts to support them by facilitating knowledge exchange through the International Reporting System for Operating Experience (IRS) and the newly established COVID-19 Operational Experience Network.
Reduced staffing and telecommuting are among a number of special measures put in place by operators of nuclear power plants, research reactors and other nuclear facilities. Others include social distancing, regular medical screenings of staff, sterilization of work areas and purchase by the operator of specific personal protective equipment, travel restrictions, self-isolation, and meeting restrictions.
While nuclear safety and security are national responsibilities, the IAEA supports countries in a variety of ways including through its safety standards, security guidance documents and nuclear energy series publications.
“Operators have primary responsibility for safety and security. They are acting responsibly in taking these sensible precautions and carefully planned organizational changes, while continuing to ensure safety and security, and which are typically reviewed by national nuclear regulatory bodies,” said Peter Tarren, Head of the IAEA’s Operational Safety Section.
Some of the special measures implemented include the extension of regular procedures such as reduced staffing, which is a common practice on weekends while other staff remain on call if needed. Other new measures announced by some operators to minimize disease spread and maintain a safe complement of essential personnel include offsetting work hours, revised shift patterns, alternative ways of communicating with control room personnel or even asking essential staff to live at the site temporarily.
In the context of the unfolding pandemic, the IAEA safety standards in particular require that staffing levels be adequate to operate and shut down a reactor and maintain safety during the shutdown process. For this, a core group of staff should be identified for operating the reactor safely, Tarren said.
To help operators and regulators learn from each other’s experience, the IAEA is gathering relevant practices through the IRS, an online platform jointly managed with the Nuclear Energy Agency of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, through which countries submit and respond to reports on events of international interest for the purpose of enhancing safety practices at nuclear facilities.
“The IAEA is gathering feedback from operating countries about how they are ensuring that enough personnel are available to keep power plants operating safely and securely,” Tarren said. “They have shown determination and innovation in designing measures that reduce the risk of their staff contracting COVID-19, and their willingness to share this information through the IRS is extremely helpful for all participating countries.”
In addition, to assist nuclear facility operators in the current crisis, the IAEA has launched the COVID-19 Operational Experience Network, a pilot peer-to-peer network designed to serve as a repository for planned or implemented response actions during the crisis.
“The information in this network will include ways to limit the pandemic’s spread, definitions of critical competencies for power plant operations and access restrictions,” said Pal Vincze Head of the IAEA’s Nuclear Power Engineering Section. “It also focuses on specific organizational preparedness arrangements for COVID-19 and includes data on planned outages in response to the crisis.”
The IAEA Nuclear Energy Series publication Industrial Safety Guidelines for Nuclear Facilities provides operators with information on preparing and implementing plans for responding to a wide range of hazards, including pandemics. The plans help to ensure that employees minimize the potential for contracting the applicable disease and that the nuclear facility has sufficient healthy staff available to maintain safe operation.
“By collecting and sharing these experiences, the IAEA aims to provide expanded knowledge for operators around the world to strengthen their capacity to respond to this crisis and any similar ones in the future,” Vincze said. The information gathered this way will be taken into consideration in the revision of relevant IAEA documents, he added.
As the COVID-19 situation continues to unfold, nuclear facilities other than power plants such as research reactors and fuel cycle facilities face similar operational challenges.
Along with the universities and research institutions in which they operate, many research reactors that focus on training and research are in temporary shutdown – a state in which a reactor’s operations are on hold until circumstances change. IAEA Safety Standard SSR-3 provides information on maintaining the safety of research reactors as well as staff arrangements and staffing levels during extended periods of shutdown.
Most research reactors whose production of isotopes used in medicine is vital for health care continue to operate at reduced staffing levels. The IAEA is currently reaching out to operators who are members of its Technical Working Group on Research Reactors to gather information on the status of research reactors that produce medical isotopes during the COVID-19 crisis as well as issues related to world-wide supply.
Guidance to operators of fuel cycle facilities, which are used to convert and enrich uranium and manufacture reactor fuel, is available in IAEA Safety Standards SSR-4, including on operations under various constraints.
Nuclear security considerations are paramount and security needs to be maintained whether or not a facility is operational. “While a pandemic such as COVID-19 does not typically affect nuclear security threat assessments, operators need to adapt and implement measures to ensure that nuclear materials in facilities that are not actively used are protected according to requirements for materials in storage”, said Muhammad Khaliq, Head of the IAEA Nuclear Security of Materials and Facilities Section.