Twin cooling towers of the Rancho Seco Nuclear Generating Station in California (U.S. Energy Department photo)

How Nuclear Power Has Navigated COVID-19’s Critical Infrastructure Threats

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Nuclear accounts for 20 percent of electricity production in the United States today and is therefore part of the nation’s critical infrastructure. The nuclear industry’s response to the ongoing and evolving COVID-19 crisis has been largely ad hoc, based on generic pandemic plans. From regulatory oversight to day-to-day plant operations, most pandemic mitigations have been reactionary rather than proactive. And yet, at least for the time being, the industry appears to be performing admirably under adverse and unprecedented conditions.

Our team looked, first and foremost, at the health and safety of personnel involved in the nuclear industry, from plant workers to regulators, and from reactor operators to instructors. We also considered cybersecurity in the context of massively expanded work-from-home settings. Finally, we examined the pandemic impact on the industry’s infrastructure, including fuel cycle interruptions, supply chain issues, and transportation.

With regard to personnel safety, we found that in addition to expanded leave and telework options, the industry moved to increase protection for essential workers, mostly without any federal guidance. Plants set up temperature screening points, procured PPE and hand sanitizer, enforced social distancing, and mandated intensive cleaning protocols of shared spaces. Outage tasks and staffing were reduced, preventative maintenance was postponed, and essential workers were subjected to extensive questions about travel and other possible exposure.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission moved all possible activities to remote, including, perhaps controversially, inspections. The agency’s overall emphasis was on monitoring, making information available online, shifting application processes to online portals, and providing increased flexibility with regard to schedules and shifts. Most prominently, the NRC approved multiple exemptions to work hours, which allows for longer (and fewer) shifts, reducing personnel overlap, while assuring Fitness for Duty (FFD) requirements. Operator training and requalification seems to have been only minimally impacted. The few reported outbreaks occurred among transient, temporary workers and likely originated in the common practice of worker cohabitation.

In terms of infrastructure, our team found minimal pandemic impact. The long refueling cycle characteristic for nuclear plants greatly assisted the industry’s resilience to supply chain disruptions during the first 10 months of the pandemic. As the pandemic enters its second year, however, we are likely to see more of an impact, as refueling becomes necessary, and maintenance outages cannot be deferred indefinitely.

Our group recognizes the successes of the nuclear industry in navigating this public health crisis, but we must not lose sight of the fact that the pandemic will likely get worse before it gets better. We must remain vigilant against complacency and maintain a “healthy sense of uneasiness”: some “near misses” should serve as warnings for the future. Going forward, we recommend prioritizing the following:

  • Add a systematic approach to testing to the nuclear industry’s COVID mitigation strategy. Without adequate testing, triggering sequestration (where the typical crew rotations are stopped and fewer crews maintain rotation and remain sequestered on-site) might prove ineffective.
  • Return NRC inspections to in-person and on-site, as there is valid concern for the effectiveness of virtual/online inspections.
  • Subsidize separate housing for workers to prevent outbreaks and promote worker health and morale.
  • In the light of the recent IT security breaches of federal agencies, pay extra attention to our work-from-home cybersecurity infrastructure. The nuclear industry should regularly probe their employees’ cybersecurity practices, and consider new challenges arising from an environment of “smart” home devices.
  • The NRC should continue tracking the effectiveness of exemptions and reliefs granted to licensees. A “readiness crisis” from changes in annual force-on-force drill requirements, e.g., may not be fully apparent until the NRC restarts triennial force-on-force drill site assessments.
  • Continue efforts to prioritize the development of domestic fuel sources, proactively invest in Gen IV and advanced reactor designs with the explicit intention of hardening the U.S. electrical grid against disruptions of any kind.

Since the future of COVID-19 is still uncertain and the next pandemic will likely be very different, we should approach pandemic preparedness with a flexible mindset. We may not know how the next challenge to the nuclear industry will look, but we can proactively prepare for the conditions on the ground.

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Gaoshan Li is a Ph.D. student in chemical engineering at Virginia Tech. She received her master's degree in chemical engineering at the Johns Hopkins Whiting School of Engineering and bachelor's degree in chemical engineering from the Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology.

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