With world economies dramatically impacted by the COVID-19 virus nuclear operators considering their options. 

United States

In the USA, Maria Korsnick, president of the Nuclear Energy Institute told the New York Times that some operating reactors are “considering measures to isolate a core group to run the plant, stockpiling ready-to-eat meals and disposable tableware, laundry supplies and personal care items.”

The US Department of Homeland Security has issued guidelines advising, “When continuous remote work is not possible, businesses should enlist strategies to reduce the likelihood of spreading the disease. This includes… separating staff by off-setting shift hours or days and/or social distancing.”

DHS Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), has identified 14 employment categories as Essential Critical Infrastructure Workers, which include energy sector employees.

According to US media, electric power utilities are planning to set up housekeeping for cadres of healthy workers at the plants to keep them operating.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) said on 23 March that it expected to issue guidelines for operators to request permission for employees to work longer than allowed under current regulations.

The NRC had hosted a phone meeting with the nuclear industry on 20 March to discuss regulatory impacts due to COVID-19.

During the call, Ho Nieh, director of the NRC’s Office of Nuclear Reactor Regulation said possible measures being discussed included steps to isolate key personnel to deal with major absenteeism in critical areas that may require increasing work limits.

He also said if a facility was unable to meet a regulatory requirement, the NRC had “a variety of mechanisms to consider,” including plant closures. “We are in an unprecedented situation,” he said.

DTE Energy Co has said it will consider revising the “scope and duration” of a service outage at Fermi 2 in Michigan.

Duke Energy, which operates 11 reactors at six sites in North Carolina and South Carolina said it is coordinating efforts with NRC to ensure its nuclear plants are fully staffed. However, Duke Energy is bracing for the impact of the coronavirus pandemic and the possibility of staffing shortages. Actions taken by the company include social distancing, a no-visitor policy, increased cleaning at plants and use of screening measures before employees enter facilities. Duke has also directed employees who are not involved with power generation or other critical functions to work from home. 

French nuclear industry responds to COVID-19

In France, EDF is introducing stricter hygiene procedures at its nuclear power plants after a small number of workers walked out due to fears of getting infected during radiation screening.

EDF subsequently agreed to clean the portals twice per eight-hour shift, to increase security distancing between workers and provide gloves and hand sanitiser, according to new rules announced this week.

Currently only staff involved with operation, maintenance and security are working on-site in France. EDF has reduced staff at its Flamanville construction site from 800 to 100.

EDF told Reuters that its nuclear plants could operate for three months with a 25% reduction in staffing levels, and for two to three weeks with 40% fewer staff. There are currently 40 reactors in operation in France. 

EDF has also scrapped its nuclear generation target for 2020 on an anticipated fall in output this year because of the coronavirus crisis. It said that its maintenance schedule for reactors had been "interrupted" by the order from authorities for workers to remain at home. 

As a result, EDF said its the projection of 375-390TWh of nuclear production in France in 2020 is being reviewed and will be adjusted downwards.

However, it adding that the reduced electricity demand is expected to have "a limited financial impact" on its supply and distribution businesses. "Impacts for 2021 cannot be assessed precisely at this stage," EDF said. "The ongoing redefinition of the outage schedule, which aims primarily at maximising availability for the 2020-21 winter period, may, however, have a negative impact on 2021 output."

Elsewhere in France, Orano has suspended operation of its La Hague reprocessing plant, saying it is taking measures to protect its employees and secure its industrial facilities while maintaining critical activities. Presenting its 2019 results, Orano suspended its outlook for 2020 “given the immediate and future impact on our markets and operations of this looming global health crisis.” However Orano said it has the financial resources and financing options in place to deal with the uncertainty surrounding this crisis.

France's Nuclear Safety Authority (ASN) has also temporarily suspended most of its inspections in medical facilities carrying out nuclear activities to enable health professionals to focus on the response to the pandemic.

ASN is also working closely with the nuclear licensees and activity managers "to analyse the nuclear safety and radiation protection consequences of the measures taken to deal with the ongoing health emergency".

UK sees reduction in construction work at Hinkely Point C

In the UK, EDF Energy is reducing the workforce at its Hinkley Point C nuclear power plant by more than half. The number of workers at the site would be reduced to about 2000 from 4500, the company said, noting that the remaining skilled workers will focus on critical areas and work in shifts with extra transport and staggered breaks to minimise contact. 

EDF Energy said it had taken steps such as home working for those who can, temperature checks for people at the site, extra cleaning and changes to movement patterns.

The UK Nuclear Industry Association (NIA) noted that EDF has "comprehensive contingency plans in place to maintain operations at all power stations and that planned generation is not affected at any of its sites."

Sellafield Ltd has implemented a controlled shutdown of its facilities, including the Magnox Reprocessing Plant, after 8% of its 11,500-strong staff were forced to self-isolate to avoid infection. Ithas told most of its workers to stay away from its main site and satellite offices and to work from home. "We will maximise social distancing and the support we can provide to our community,” said Mark Neate, director of environment, safety and security.

More broadly, NIA said the UK Office of Nuclear Regulation, has confirmed that all UK nuclear sites have minimum staffing levels, and contingency plans should they fall below these levels, to enable them to remain in control of activities that could impact on nuclear safety under all foreseeable circumstances.

Canada: operation continues, as mining is suspended

In Canada, Bruce Power said it was continuing with power production from its Bruce NPP “in cooperation with our Unions, while protecting our people and following guidance from the province to do our part in proactive efforts for the containment of COVID-19.”

It also plans to continue with the production of Cobalt-60 “that we supply to Ottawa-based Nordion to be used in the treatment of cancer but largely for the sterilization of medical equipment around the world which is essential to the current fight against COVID-19.”

Construction activities related to the Life-Extension Programme were also going ahead “with appropriate precautions for workers consistent with guidance from the authorities”.

However, Cameco said it is temporarily suspending uranium production at its Cigar Lake uranium mine in northern Saskatchewan and placing the facility in safe care and maintenance mode during the COVID-19 pandemic. In consultation with Cameco, Orano Canada is suspending production at its McClean Lake uranium mill, where ore from Cigar Lake is processed.

Russian nuclear industry reaction to COVID-19

Russian state nuclear corporation Rosatom said on 23 March that it had set up a special headquarters for the fight against COVID-19 in the Russian nuclear industry.

"We have introduced additional measures at all of Russia’s nuclear power plants, including regular health check-ups of our personnel," said Rosatom CEO Alexei Likhachev.

"We have arranged for as many employees as possible to work remotely and purchased personal protective equipment and hygiene-related products in bulk; we are constantly disinfecting our production facilities and vehicles and have essentially cancelled all business trips," he added.

Rosatom reported the first case of COVID-19 disease on 19 March after an employee of subsidiary company, Turbine Technologies AAEM tested positive for coronavirus after visiting a foreign country on vacation. All employees who had contact with her were quarantined.

“Ensuring nuclear safety and safeguarding the lives and health of both our employees and the general public has been our first and utmost priority for decades. Safety is Rosatom’s key value. We have always had contingency plans for any kind of emergency situations, including those related to the health of our employees," Likhachev said.

Rosatom has also taken similar measures at its nuclear power construction sites, and is continuing with its export new build projects, despite the challenges related to the spread of the coronavirus in a number of countries.

Bulgaria sees delays to Belene tender

In Bulgaria the government has pushed back the deadline for submitting offers for a tender to choose an investor for the construction of the two-unit Belene nuclear power plant after measures over the coronavirus outbreak limited access to the project's data room.

Energy Minister Temenuzhka Petkova said on 22 March. "It would mean a delay of a month, month and a half,” she said.

Russia's Rosatom, China National Nuclear Corporation and Korea Hydro & Nuclear Power Co had been expected to file their offers as investors by the end of April. France’s Framatome and US-based General Electric had offered to supply equipment for the project.

Photo by Martin Sanchez on Unsplash