Nuclear industry’s pandemic response

1 May 2020



Nuclear plants are taking measures to continue operating safety during the coronavirus pandemic, despite falling electricity demand. However, operations at some uranium mines and fuel cycle facilities have been suspended.


ECONOMIES THAT HAVE TAKEN STRONG confinement measures had seen electricity demand decline by around 15%, largely as a result of factories and businesses halting operations, said Fatih Birol, executive director of the OECD International Energy Agency.

“Governments are rightly focused on the immediate public health emergency, but they have to remain vigilant on electricity security and safeguard vital assets amid the extreme volatility in markets. In these extraordinary times, we can manage without many things, but we can’t manage without electricity,” he said.

The IEA has called on governments to put clean energy technologies at the heart of economic stimulus packages drawn up in response to the pandemic in order not to lose sight of long-term climate change goals. The IEA expects that falling oil prices will undermine clean energy transitions by reducing the impetus for energy efficiency policies.

Birol also recognised the importance of nuclear energy in ensuring a stable supply of electricity. “Firm capacity, including nuclear power in countries that have chosen to retain it as an option, is a crucial element in ensuring a secure electricity supply,” he said.

Operation and construction

General measures being taken by the nuclear industry include deferring non-critical maintenance activities, and reducing the number of worker on site.

Nuclear Energy Agency director general William Magwood said the nuclear sector is doing its part to reduce the number of infections.

“The world’s nuclear power plants are operating safely and effectively and are contributing to the reliable grids needed to power the untold millions who are teleworking, the families sheltering at home, and essential medical facilities.. But while the energy flows, the sector itself is impacted by the pandemic and must quickly adapt to ever-changing, unprecedented, and uncertain circumstances.”

He said: “Regulators must adjust their plans for inspections. Operators will defer outages and modifications to their plants. Technologies that allow people to do their jobs away from normal workplaces must be applied in new and novel ways. In each country, choices made in the context of the level of threat to the health and safety of the workforce and the general population.”

GlobalData said the global nuclear industry’s already established robust safety culture is helping related organisations to act fast and modify their processes during the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Measures have been taken to screen nuclear power plant workers and isolate those who show Covid-19 positive symptoms through temperature checks to detect fever. All countries have advised their staff to work remotely and not on-site, hence aiding with social distancing measures,” said Somik Das senior power analyst GlobalData. Many operators are stocking food supplies, beds and other essential items to support their staff to remain on site. In some cases, key nuclear plant staff must stay in assigned accommodation and commute to and from the nuclear facility in separate transportation. “Such measures are especially important to countries such as France, Finland and Ukraine, for which nuclear power made up 46.4%, 26.3% and 25.5% of their respective cumulative installed capacity in 2019,” Das noted.

The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has decided to temporarily allow longer worker shifts to keep up mandatory staffing levels during the pandemic. The shift extensions allow workers to work for up to 86 hours in seven days. However, the Nuclear Energy Institute pointed out that 32 of the 98 commercial reactors in the US are planning to undergo essential refuelling outages this spring. Some plants, including Dominion’s Millstone 2, TVA’s Sequoyah 2, and PSEG Nuclear’s Salem 2 in New Jersey have announced measures, to streamline outage work to minimise the number of workers needed.

In France, only staff involved with the operation, maintenance and security are working onsite. EDF has also reduced staff at its Flamanville 3 EPR construction site from 800 to 100. EDF told Reuters in March that French nuclear plants could operate for three months with a 25% reduction in staffing levels, and two to three weeks with 40% fewer staff. There are currently 40 reactors in operation in France. EDF has scrapped its nuclear generation target for 2020 on an anticipated fall in output, and withdrawn its financial targets for 2020 and 2021. 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.

In the UK, EDF Energy has reduced the workforce at Hinkley Point C in Somerset. It is also delaying its planning application for Sizewell C by several weeks. Meanwhile, the first stage of consultation on proposals for a new HPR1000 nuclear power station at Bradwell-on-Sea in Essex has been extended by five weeks, and the planning inspectorate has deferred a planning decision over the Wylfa Newydd nuclear plant in Anglesey until the end of September. 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.” NIA said the UK Office for Nuclear Regulation, has confirmed that all UK nuclear sites have minimum staffing levels, and contingency plans should they fall below these levels.

Russian state nuclear corporation Rosatom announced it has set up a special headquarters for the fight against Covid-19. “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. Rosatom has taken similar measures at its nuclear power construction sites.

In Canada, Ontario Power Generation said it is delaying the start of refurbishment at Darlington 3, which had been planned for May, until later this year to help ensure stable electricity supplies during the pandemic. Unit 2 was the first of Darlington’s four units to be refurbished as part of a CAD12.8 billion ($9bn) project to extend its operating life by 30 years. The refurbishment work at Darlington 2 started in June 2018, and was completed in March. The unit has now achieved first criticality, OPG said in April.

Fuel cycle

As well as power production, uranium mining has also been impacted by the coronavirus pandemic.

The Canadian uranium company, Cameco, has temporarily idled production of its Cigar Lake uranium mine in northern Saskatchewan, Canada, reducing staff on site from around 300 to 35.

Cameco’s joint venture partner, Orano Canada, has also shut down operations at its McClean Lake uranium mill, which processes ore from the Cigar Lake mine.

The Kazakhstan national atomic company Kazatomprom, the world’s largest uranium producer, has temporarily ceased production at its mines. In 2019, Kazakhstan accounted for more than 42% of the world’s uranium production. The company expects Kazakhstan’s 2020 annual uranium production volume to decrease by up to 4000tU from previous expectations (previously 22,750tU to 22,800tU). Responding to Kazatomprom’s announcement, Cameco said the reduction in activity will impact production from Joint Venture Inkai LLP (JV Inkai), a uranium operation jointly owned by Cameco (40%) and Kazatomprom (60 %).

Production has also been suspended at the Rossing uranium mine in Namibia.

As to fuel cycle facilities, France’s 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 but said it has the financial resources and financing options in place to deal with the uncertainty surrounding this crisis.

In the UK, Sellafield Ltd has implemented a controlled shutdown of its facilities, including the Magnox Reprocessing Plant, after 8% of its 11,500 staff was forced to self-isolate to avoid infection. It has told most of its workers to stay away from the Sellafield 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 at Sellafield Ltd.

In Canada, Cameco has temporarily placed the UF6 plant at its Port Hope conversion facility in Ontario in safe shutdown due to the “increasing challenge” of maintaining an adequate workforce during the Covid-19 health crisis. “While our fuel services facilities have been able to operate safely, it has become increasingly challenging to maintain a sufficient roster of qualified operators for the UF6 plant,” said Tim Gitzel, Cameco president and CEO. “Therefore, after weighing many factors, including the state of the pandemic, we made a measured decision to suspend production in a careful, planned manner at the UF6 plant and the UO3 refinery which feeds it.”

The uranium spot price reached a four-year high of $31.30 on 14 April, according to figures from TradeTech cited by Yellow Cake plc. The coronavirus is so far estimated to have affected 30-35% of global uranium supply.

Supporting health workers

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is supporting the nuclear industry worldwide. It has also dispatched equipment to more than 40 countries to enable them to use a nuclear-derived technique to detect the coronavirus that causes Covid-19. Dozens of laboratories in Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America and the Caribbean will receive diagnostic machines and kits, reagents and laboratory consumables to speed up national testing including equipment and training in a nuclear-driven diagnostic technique called real-time reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction or RT-PCR.

At the same time, nuclear companies large and small are stepping up to support those affected by the coronavirus pandemic. Many have donated personal protective equipment to frontline healthcare workers, and others are stepping to manufacture parts for ventilators, or make PPE.

Mike Di Lisi wears a 3D-printed face shield at Ontario Power Generation’s X-Lab innovation hub in Canada (Photo credit: OPG)
The nuclear- derived diagnostic technique known as real time RT-PCR can help detect and identify the novel coronavirus accurately within hours (Photo credit: D. Calma/ IAEA)
Temperature checks being carried out by Ukraine’s nuclear power plant operator (Photo credit: Energoatom)
Cameco has temporarily placed the UF6 plant at its Port Hope conversion facility in Ontario in safe shutdown (Photo credit: Cameco)


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