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Nuclear safety and the coronavirus pandemic: expert views

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 

Here is an excerpt from a March 26 post by Dr. Ed Lyman from the Union of Concerned Scientists, discussing nuclear safety issues in the US:1

"In 2006, the NRC [Nuclear Regulatory Commission] held a workshop to consider the impacts of a pandemic flu outbreak on safety. A number of difficult policy questions were discussed, including the potential need to sequester workers early in an outbreak and the effect of high rates of absenteeism. But little was done to resolve these questions.

"In 2007 the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), the nuclear industry's main trade organization in Washington, submitted a draft "Pandemic Licensing Plan"2 to the NRC for review. The plan recognized "the potential for an influenza pandemic to reduce nuclear plant staffing below the levels necessary to maintain full compliance with all NRC regulatory requirements," described "the regulatory actions necessary to permit continued operation with reduced staffing levels for approximately four to six weeks" and recommended, "NRC enforcement discretion as the most efficient and effective licensing response to a pandemic."

"In justifying this approach, NEI argued that "regulatory relief to permit rescheduling of selected activities and deferral of most administrative and programmatic requirements would balance the risk from continued operation with the risk from regional blackouts and grid instability."

"At the time, the NRC did not buy NEI's argument for broad and pre-approved enforcement discretion that would increase radiological risk during a pandemic, responding that:

"the NRC staff finds that without bounding entry conditions and more specific technical bases for the proposed regulatory relief, NEI's approach still presents significant challenges that may prevent meaningful overall progress in pandemic preparation. For instance, the plan contains only limited justification concerning the public health and safety need for nuclear power plants to remain on-line during a pandemic; likewise, the plan does not adequately explain why increased safety and security risk may be offset by considerations of need for electric power. Moreover, the plan continues to raise other significant legal and policy issues that would need to be resolved."3

"Although the NRC and NEI continued to discuss these issues more than a decade ago, there is no indication that their differences were ever resolved. Concern about an influenza pandemic was overshadowed by the Fukushima accident. Today, the NRC is in a different place. Three of the four sitting commissioners are Republicans who embody the spirit of the pro-industry, anti-regulation Trump administration. It would be shocking to see the NRC staff criticize an NEI proposal in 2020 the way it did back in 2008.

"In an NRC public meeting on March 20 to discuss regulatory issues related to the coronavirus pandemic, an NEI representative referred to the 2007 NEI Pandemic Licensing Plan as the basis for the industry's regulatory contingency approach, and no one from the NRC raised the staff's previous concerns about the plan. The NRC staff said that the agency was planning to issue a memorandum to provide guidance on enforcement issues, but did not address the standards it would be using to approve enforcement discretion ‒ and in particular, whether it now accepted NEI's argument that a net increase in radiological risk would be appropriate to reduce the unlikely risks to the electrical grid."

The International Nuclear Risk Assessment Group summarizes nuclear safety risks associated with the pandemic in a paper released in April:4

"While nuclear utilities emphasise the importance of worker health and safety, they nevertheless remain determined to keep their plants running, which ... implies shortening refuelling outages by requesting regulatory exemptions for scheduled and necessary repairs. In this context, our key concern is that the reductions in staffing, inspections, outages and necessary maintenance being implemented in many countries in response to the pandemic will adversely affect safety margins at nuclear facilities, potentially leading to a serious accident. This is being done with approval by regulators.

"However, no regulatory body has provided a current, transparent framework to justify these kinds of decisions. Thus, regulators should provide greater information about the factors used to decide whether any deferred activity is acceptable and transparently share whether these are being strictly adhered to. For example, the minimum workforce needed for the safe operation of nuclear facilities including during incidents and accidents, should be publicly specified. Once this minimum workforce is no longer guaranteed, plants must be shut down. In the longer term, the adequacy of these standards for periods such as this and their implementation should be openly debated.

"A severe nuclear accident under pandemic conditions would inevitably exacerbate the inevitable highly adverse consequences. In addition to the radiological contamination, the task of evacuating large numbers of people from the most contaminated areas may prove an almost insurmountable challenge. The ongoing forest fires around Chernobyl are a reminder that a major nuclear accident can lead to widespread contamination that remains hazardous for many decades. High vigilance is needed in order to make sure at all times that the sanitary, social and economic crisis of the Covid-19 pandemic is not exacerbated by a serious nuclear safety or security failure.

"Although electricity demand is plunging due to the pandemic, countries with a very high dependence on nuclear power generation may eventually be impacted if NPPs must be shut down for safety and security reasons. While meeting electricity demand is important under the circumstances of a pandemic, the measures to continue NPP operation that we have described above might well impact the safety and security level of nuclear power plants, enhance the risk for safety related incidents to occur, and may reduce the likelihood that an evolving event could be effectively controlled. We emphasize that any nuclear accident evolving during the time of a pandemic will put a severe and additional burden on national emergency systems already under pressure to deal with the immediate effects of the pandemic.

"Claims about need for nuclear power to ensure electricity service security should also be balanced with the fact that demand for electricity has fallen everywhere and this has affected nuclear power generation.

"Given this scenario, the justification for imposing the potential for nuclear accidents has to be weighed with extreme care.

"To summarize, the pandemic must not lead to any reduction in nuclear safety standards. That requires international and national regulators to determine, publicise, rigorously enforce and maintain safety and security standards."

Victor Gilinsky, a former member of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and Henry Sokolski, a former deputy for nonproliferation policy in the office of the US secretary of defense, wrote in an April 27 article:5

"The coronavirus crisis has revealed a significant Achilles' heel in civilian nuclear power: The plants can't operate if their relatively few highly skilled operators get sick or become contagious and have to be quarantined … Unlike other types of electric-generating plants, nuclear plants need operators to remain in control even after they are shut down because their radioactive uranium fuel cores, typically about 100 tons, continue to generate large amounts of heat. If the heat is not removed by cooling water, it can melt the core. During the 1979 Three Mile Island accident in Pennsylvania, over half the inadequately cooled core melted in hours. …

"Just operating in safe shutdown state could be challenging. The details differ from plant to plant and are spelled out in technical specifications that are part of each plant's federal license, but generally it takes a supervisor and several operators to man the control room and some number of maintenance staff. Altogether, counting all shifts, there may be a couple of dozen operators per plant. That doesn't sound like much, but these are highly skilled personnel who are licensed to operate an individual plant. You can't just pull in operators from elsewhere. If the licensed operators are unavailable because of disease or medical concerns, you are out of luck.

"The operators would surely not abandon their plant so long as they could remain at their posts, but having a skeleton crew of sick and fatigued individuals operating a nuclear plant is, to say the least, not a desirable state of affairs. …

"A COVID-19-related notice on the NRC website states the commission "will require plants to shut down if they cannot appropriately staff their facilities," but during a March 20 teleconference the NRC representative assured the industry that the agency was prepared to issue blanket exemptions from license requirements.

"Operating a plant at power takes a lot more staff than maintaining it in safe shutdown state. Nuclear plant managements around the world have been forced to consider the consequences of coronavirus infections and the need to quarantine employees who have been in contact with infected people. The conclusions are stark. According to a Reuters report, EDF, the utility that runs all the nuclear plants in France, said its plants "could operate for three months with a 25% reduction in staffing levels and for two to three weeks with 40% fewer staff." At one plant in the north of France, Flamanville, EDF announced it was reducing the staff at the plant from 800 to 100, keeping only those "in charge of safety and security." There are reports that U.S. nuclear plants may ask essential staff to live on-site if the pandemic worsens, and plants have stockpiled bedding and ready-to-eat meals.

"During this emergency, nuclear plant managers are doing their best to keep the lights on and the public safe. But the pandemic exposes a vulnerability of the nuclear plants that we will have to take account of in future decisions. One thing is clear: The picture painted by the trade association for the nuclear industry, the Nuclear Energy Institute, of the essential invulnerability of nuclear plants is not correct. …

"Nuclear plants are not without their advantages. But they also come with serious disadvantages, one of which ‒ the safety imperative for constant, highly trained staffing no matter what ‒ has become evident during the current pandemic. They are an inflexible source of energy that carries an enormous overhead in terms of safety and security, when what we need in our energy system for dealing with inevitable emergencies is not rigidity, but resilience."


1. Ed Lyman, 26 March 2020, 'Nuclear Power Safety and the COVID-19 Pandemic',



4. International Nuclear Risk Assessment Group, 24 April 2020, 'Nuclear Safety and Security during a Pandemic',

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5. Victor Gilinsky and Henry Sokolski, 27 April 2020, 'The Hidden Nuclear Risk of the Pandemic',