Barakah Nuclear Power Plant
The Barakah Nuclear Power Plant in Abu Dhabi Image Credit: Supplied

Since the outbreak of the novel Coronavirus (Covid-19) in December 2019, and the World Health Organisation declared it as a pandemic in March, it has triggered shock waves across the globe locking down over 190 countries and affecting everyday life.

The world is experiencing unprecedented challenges. The pandemic has profoundly disrupted businesses, trade, education, industries, investments and other sectors.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) estimates the world economy loss to be around $9 trillion in 2020-2021. Multilateral cooperation is needed more than ever to contain the pandemic and mitigate its far-reaching consequences.

The nuclear industry is no exception. Before I elaborate on the impact on the nuclear industry and propose solutions, it is important to mention the essential role of the nuclear energy in producing electricity that is needed to support health care facilities to address the patients’ needs and help first responders in their efforts to curb the spread of the virus.

There are 450 nuclear power plants in operation globally, producing roughly 10% of global electricity and 53 others under construction in 19 countries.

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Since the outbreak started in December 2019, governments and international organisations around the world took precautionary measures to mitigate its impact.

Many nuclear power plants operators and regulators have been affected by the current measures, leading to a drop by 10-20% in electricity generation, according to World Nuclear Association.

In many countries, nuclear employees have been identified as among the key workers that are essential to maintaining important infrastructure.

Some nuclear plant operators are taking various actions to protect their workforce and implementing business continuity plans. Activities on construction sites are being reduced or stopped, and new working practices introduced.

In UK, staff numbers have been reduced by more than half in the Hinkley Point C nuclear plant, which is under construction. In China, work was halted on some reactors under construction in response to the pandemic. As work gradually resumes, countermeasures are being introduced for the employees returning to site.

In US, Duke Energy (which operates 11 reactors), nuclear reactors are being impacted by staff shortage. They have adopted some actions such screening measures at reactors as well as working remotely.

Altered activities

For the UAE Barakah Nuclear Power Plant, both the Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation (ENEC) and its operating and maintenance subsidiary, the Nawah Energy Company (Nawah), have embedded specific COVID-19 safety measures throughout their operations and altered their activities on-site.

These measures include reducing the number of workers on site at the plant, enforcing social distancing guidelines, establishing thermal monitoring at access points, and pausing work on Units 2, 3 and 4 for an initial period of two weeks to minimise the working population and subsequent transmission risk within Barakah.

Such impacts are visible among various international nuclear regulatory bodies, who work to ensure the safety of the public by regulating the industry.

The United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has taken the innovative step of permitting lower-risk licensing activities and facility walk-throughs to be conducted over video calls accompanied by the electronic submission of documents.

In addition, NRC has been exploring opportunities to issue regulatory exemptions, amendments to license conditions and technical specifications, and loosening its enforcement mechanisms where deemed possible.

Safety precautions

Meanwhile, the UK’s Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR), the Finnish Radiation and Nuclear Safety Authority (STUK), the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC), and other regulatory authorities around the world have already begun issuing exemptions for work-hour limits and permitting reduced staffing, alongside enabling operators to offset work hours, revise shift patterns, implement alternative ways of communicating with control room personnel, and asking essential staff to live on site temporarily.

While, it is challenging to be physically available at sites, such measures are critical for the regulators to take in coordination with operators to ensure safety of staff and continuity of the business to address increasing needs of the community at these times.

For the UAE, the Federal Authority for Nuclear Regulation (FANR) adopted the federal government directions to curb the virus spread by activating its Business Continuity Management Plan and setting a crisis management COVID-19 Task Force, which have implemented a range of measures across the organisation.

These include the obvious, such as mandating employees to work remotely to the more technical steps of reducing the number of resident inspectors on site at the Barakah Nuclear Energy Plant and the exploration of innovative new ways to conduct inspection and enforcement activities remotely through digital means.

Moreover, FANR is conducting only crucial inspections at facilities that use nuclear or radioactive materials. Over the past three years, FANR developed and implemented a Web-based e-Services for licensees authorised by FANR to conduct activities involving radioactive sources and radiation generators.

The e-Service allows issuing licences to conduct regulated activities including import and export. The COVID-19 crisis has demonstrated the efficiency and the effectiveness of this e-Service.

Impact of Covid-19

The impacts of Covid-19 have not only affected nuclear operators and regulators, but also reached the remaining of the nuclear fuel cycle such as uranium mining, waste management and decommissioning, where many activities came to a halt to protect the workforce from contracting the virus.

When we look at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), it is playing an important role to stem the pandemic: it has recently dispatched nuclear-derived detection techniques to few countries to help tackling the spread of the novel coronavirus.

The IAEA is supporting its 171 Member States by establishing the COVID-19 Operational Experience Network to facilitate knowledge exchange, and the collection of relevant practices among its members.

It postponed some of its conferences such as the Review Meeting of the Contracting Parties to the Convention on Nuclear Safety and other cooperation activities and is planning to conduct some of them virtually.

No doubt, the Covid-19 pandemic is an unprecedented crisis in our modern times. The current situation made governments and international organisations consider new ways to conduct the business and protect the communities. We need to turn the recovery into an opportunity to safeguard the future.

The nuclear stakeholders, whether operators or regulators, should find solutions and develop concrete strategies to regulate the industry in the aftermath of the pandemic. It is important to work together to identify lessons learnt.

Lessons of Chernobyl

The nuclear industry learnt a number of lessons after the Chernobyl in 1986, some of which we are now benefiting from. We established new institutions and conventions and enhanced international cooperation and coordination.

We introduced measures of transparency and international peer review mechanisms. We established various ways to control trade and borders to ensure safety of the public.

And we enhanced significantly the preparedness and response mechanisms to nuclear and radiation crises.

The culture of moving to crises mode is nothing new to the nuclear regulators. These and other measures have all been of use these days, but new lessons are going to be drawn, such as how regulators will conduct inspectors remotely, the need to revisit current regulations to take pandemics into consideration, and in establishing smart licensing procedures and systems.

We need to rethink ways of working with nuclear power plants under construction in light of a pandemic.

Multilateral cooperation is needed more than ever to contain the pandemic and mitigate its far-reaching consequences. We need innovations more than ever!

Christer Viktorsson is the Director General of the UAE Federal Authority for Nuclear Regulation (FANR)