How to keep nuclear power plants operating safely during the coronavirus pandemic

Masked policemen are seen on the grounds of the Federal Supreme Court (Bundesgerichtshof) in Karlsruhe, southern Germany, after five Tajiks suspected to be members of an IS terror cell were arrested. (Photo by Thomas Lohnes/AFP via Getty Images.) Masked policemen are seen on the grounds of the Federal Supreme Court (Bundesgerichtshof) in Karlsruhe, southern Germany, after five Tajiks suspected to be members of an Islamic State terror cell were arrested. (Photo by Thomas Lohnes/AFP via Getty Images.)

As the COVID-19 pandemic devastates the world, nuclear power plants must remain safe and secure to provide electricity for food supply chains, emergency response teams, hospitals, and telecommunications in countries home to more than half of all people. Meanwhile, the Islamic State terror group has already announced its intent to exploit the pandemic, and other violent extremist organizations are also taking pains to use the crisis for their own purposes.

In fact, prosecutors in Germany said that federal police detained five suspected members of the Islamic State this week for allegedly planning to stage an attack on US military facilities. Prosecutors did not disclose which facilities the five men, all from Tajikistan, planned to attack. The US military installations in Germany include a nuclear weapons depot.

Without extraordinary measures to maintain safety and security, nuclear installations could risk compounding the crisis with a large-scale radiation release.

Operators and regulators have long anticipated that a pandemic might threaten the continuity of nuclear operations. According to Roger Howsley, the former head of security for Britain’s nuclear fuel manufacturer, “[E]pidemics are usually covered in emergency planning arrangements, but probably nothing on this scale.” For instance, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) held a workshop in 2006 on “Sustaining Safe Nuclear Operations During an Influenza Pandemic.” Unfortunately, according to Edwin Lyman of the Union of Concerned Scientists, the NRC could not reach an agreement with industry on contingency plans.

All 32 countries with nuclear power plants, nuclear weapons, or both, face COVID-19 on their territory. Nuclear establishments are directly affected, as both Rosatom employees in Russia and sailors aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt (powered by two nuclear reactors) contracted COVID-19. With the pandemic still raging, more nuclear institutions will be affected.

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How are nuclear organizations coping with the coronavirus pandemic, and what are best practices that should spread? It is early in the course of the outbreak, but some answers are emerging. First, nuclear installations are implementing broad public health measures, having employees work-from home when possible, use personal protection equipment, wash their hands frequently, and keep a proper distance at workstations. Many also check the temperatures of employees when they enter nuclear facilities. Operators in most leading nuclear countries have announced such measures.

Second, nuclear activities other than power production can be halted temporarily. For example, Canada suspended mining and milling of uranium ore. Kazakhstan is preparing to make use of existing stocks to meet uranium demands. South Africa and Namibia have halted all mining, including of uranium. In the United Kingdom and France, the Sellafield and La Hague plants are shut down.

Third, nuclear sites can delay labor-intensive operations. Nuclear power plants generally need fuel about every 18 months; usually, refueling happens in the spring or fall, when electricity demand is relatively low. Such operations require many outside specialists to travel to and enter a plant, using transportation, hotels, and restaurants for over a month. The US NRC is considering temporary waivers for some operations such as routine inspections during refueling, and France’s EDF has announced that it will change its refueling schedule, reducing power output; the reductions are expected to be offset by a drop in demand.

Fourth, regulators may also decide to temporarily ease some controls. For example, as a provision against a worker shortage, the NRC eased restrictions on the number of hours personnel can work. These deferrals must be weighed against any increased risk that they might pose to operational safety and security and would not affect minimum NRC requirements for numbers of plant operators and armed guards.

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Fifth, nuclear establishments can isolate essential workers as a preventive measure. While this is a drastic step, enterprises in Russia, the United States, Ukraine, and France are doing just that, either by transporting, housing, and feeding workers separately or by creating back-up teams, held apart from other operators.

Sixth, nuclear enterprises can ramp up cyber defenses. According to one nuclear security manager, “Hackers and criminals are unscrupulous and would take advantage of the relatively fragile situation of companies.” A British security industry leader, Martin Smith, reports that “[m]any of our members have highlighted the massive increase in phishing attacks and online scams that have bubble up since [the COVID-19 crisis] started.” These problems are compounded by work-from-home policies that may impair cyber-security.

Seventh, nuclear operators can share best practices and knowledge about how to mitigate the effects of COVID-19. While some nuclear facilities have contingency plans for pandemics, the length of this international crisis may strain even the most robust strategies. Institutions with international reach focused on nuclear safety and security—like the World Institute for Nuclear Security and the International Atomic Energy Agency—can facilitate information sharing.

Last but hardly least, nuclear operators and their security contractors can take additional measures to prevent the Islamic State, al-Qaeda, and other violent extremist actors from exploiting opportunities to stage attacks. We hope that they are taking measures to ensure that proper staffing levels relating to the physical security of nuclear plants are maintained during the pandemic.

Nuclear enterprises across the world are acting to maintain safety and security while providing power to vital operations during the COVID-19 crisis. Many had planned against the possibility of an epidemic, but very likely the severity of the pandemic is beyond what was imagined. Some of the steps that have been taken are sensible. But enterprises will also need to share information, learn quickly, and adapt over the course of the crisis.

As the coronavirus crisis shows, we need science now more than ever.

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