As the COVID-19 pandemic makes governments and international organisations consider new ways of conducting business and protecting communities, we need to turn the recovery into an opportunity to safeguard the future, writes Christer Viktorsson, director general of the UAE’s Federal Authority for Nuclear Regulation.

Christer Viktorsson, director general of the UAE's Federal Authority for Nuclear Regulation (Image: FANR)

"Since the outbreak of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) in December 2019, and the World Health Organisation declared it a pandemic in March, it has triggered shock waves across the globe, locking down over 190 countries and affecting every-day life. The world is experiencing unprecedented challenges. The pandemic has profoundly disrupted businesses, trade, education, industries, investments and other sectors. The International Monetary Fund estimates the world economy loss to be around USD9 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 nuclear energy in producing electricity that is needed to support healthcare facilities to address patient needs and to 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.

Since the outbreak started, governments and international organisations around the world have taken precautionary measures to mitigate its impact. Many nuclear power plant operators and regulators have been affected by the current measures, leading to a drop of 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 power plant operators have been 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 the UK, staff numbers have been reduced by more than half at 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 who are returning on site. In the USA, Duke Energy, which operates 11 nuclear reactors, is being impacted by a staff shortage and has adopted actions such screening measures at reactors as well as working remotely.

For the Barakah nuclear power plant in the UAE, both the Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation and its operating and maintenance subsidiary, Nawah Energy Company, have embedded specific COVID-19 safety measures across their operations and altered their activities on-site. These measures include reducing the number of workers 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 number of workers required and the transmission risk at Barakah.

Such impacts are visible among various nuclear regulatory bodies around the world, 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 walkthroughs to be conducted over video calls accompanied by the electronic submission of documents. In addition, the NRC has been exploring opportunities to issue regulatory exemptions, amendments to licence conditions and technical specifications and loosening its enforcement mechanisms where deemed possible.

Meanwhile, the UK's Office for Nuclear Regulation, the Finnish Radiation and Nuclear Safety Authority, the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, 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 the safety of staff and the continuity of the business to address the increasing needs of the community during these times.

For the UAE, the Federal Authority for Nuclear Regulation (FANR) adopted the federal government directions to curb the spread of the virus 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 power 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 licences to be issued for regulated activities, including imports and exports. The COVID-19 crisis has demonstrated the efficiency and the effectiveness of this e-Service.

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

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) it is playing an important role in stemming the pandemic. It has recently dispatched nuclear-derived detection techniques to some countries in order to help tackle 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 has 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.

There’s no doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic is an unprecedented crisis in modern times. The current situation has made governments and international organisations consider new ways of conducting business and protecting communities. We need to turn the recovery into an opportunity to safeguard the future.
Nuclear energy 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 the lessons learned.

The nuclear industry has always had a constructive attitude towards continuous learning. For example, it learnt a number of lessons from the Chernobyl accident in 1986, some of which we are now benefitting 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 not a new thing for nuclear regulators. These and other measures have all been put to use during the current crisis, but new lessons are going to be drawn from it, such as how regulators conduct inspections remotely, the need to revisit current regulations to take pandemics into consideration, and in establishing smart licensing procedures and systems. We need to re-think ways of working with nuclear power plants under construction during a pandemic. Multilateral cooperation is needed more than ever to contain the pandemic and mitigate its far-reaching consequences."

Christer Viktorsson

Date: Tuesday, 12 May 2020
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