COVID-19 Coronavirus and Nuclear Energy

(Updated 11 June 2020)

  • Nuclear reactors have a key role to play in many countries in ensuring that electricity supplies are maintained during the COVID-19 crisis.
  • Reactor operators have taken steps to protect their workforce and have implemented business continuity plans to ensure the continuing functioning of key business activities where appropriate.
  • Operations have been halted at some facilities, where necessary or deemed appropriate, to prevent the spread of the virus and protect workers. Some facilities have now restarted operations.
  • Nuclear technologies are also being used to detect and fight the virus.

(For more on the latest developments please see the COVID-19 section of World Nuclear News.)

Nuclear energy's role in maintaining electricity supplies

Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) is an infectious disease caused by the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2). The global pandemic has required dramatic action to be taken in all aspects of life worldwide.​

Maintaining reliable electricity supplies and ‘keeping the lights on’ is vital. Nuclear generation supplies around 10.5% of electricity worldwide and contributes to electricity generation in over 30 countries. In many countries nuclear employees have been identified as among the key workers that are essential to maintaining important infrastructure. Additionally, in the US, for example, critical infrastructure designation has been extended to nuclear plant, supply chain, fuel services, and outage support personnel. The measures taken by governments around the world to combat COVID-19 have resulted in a fall in electricity consumption in some countries – typically reductions of 10-25% from expected demand.  Depending on national circumstances, selected nuclear plants can reduce output or stop generation where any reduction in overall demand requires it. 

Nuclear generation has two characteristics that assist in maintaining supplies. Firstly, in most reactors, fuel assemblies are used for around three years. There is therefore greater security of supply than for fossil fuel plants, which require a constant feed of coal or gas. Reloads of nuclear fuel take place every 12-18 months and operating companies have developed strategies to focus on refuelling during outages to reduce the number of staff required. Secondly, nuclear reactors operate with high capacity factors, providing a more reliable, constant supply than some intermittent renewables, such as wind and solar.

There has been no enforced shutdown of a nuclear power reactor due to the effects of COVID-19 on the workforce or supply chains, according to reports from operators and regulators received through the International Atomic Energy Agency's (IAEA's) COVID-19 Operational Experience Network (OPEX) and International Reporting System for Operating Experience (IRS). According to the IAEA, operators and regulators have continued to ensure safety and security at plants worldwide even as the pandemic has impacted them in various ways, including their planned outages and maintenance schedules.

While operators took measures to reduce the risk of infection among employees and maintain day-to-day operations, lower electricity demand caused by restrictions on economic activity has led to some plants having to reduce power output. Adjustments to activities such as scheduled maintenance outages have also had to be made, by deferring non-critical work, commensurate with the availability of staff while observing distancing practices.

Responses to protect workers and ensure continued operation of reactors

The nuclear industry has taken action in response to the global COVID-19 pandemic to protect workers and reduce transmission of the virus. 

Actions that have been taken depend on the guidance and directives implemented in different countries and regions. In countries where it is advised or required, remote working has been implemented for those staff not required to work on-site. This has reduced the number of staff on-site, which helps in implementing social distancing measures. Companies have also restricted or cancelled non-essential business travel and used conference video and audio calls for meetings, even for those employees that were still working on-site. Other ways to enhance social distancing include staggering staff meal breaks to reduce the number of staff using canteens at the same time or staggering the start and end of shifts to reduce the number of staff arriving / leaving at the same time. Measures to screen those workers who are working on-site include temperature monitoring to identify fever, a common symptom of COVID-19. In addition, the importance of maintaining high levels of hygiene, staying at home where appropriate and maintaining social distancing away from work will be as high for nuclear workers as it is for everyone.

Some companies have secured supplies of food, beds and other essentials to allow workers to stay on-site to minimize their contact with others in the event that this is required. Key nuclear plant staff may also stay in dedicated accommodation and travel to and from site in separate transportation.

Managing the impacts of COVID-19 on all areas of nuclear industry operations

In many countries operations in different parts of the nuclear industry have continued. However, depending on the situation with COVID-19 where they are located, operations not vital to ensuring the continued operation of nuclear power plants may have been stopped.

Mining

Kazatomprom, Kazakhstan’s state-owned uranium production company announced on 7 April that, in order to abide by local lockdown requirements and reduce the risk of a localized outbreak, all of Kazatomprom’s subsidiaries would reduce the number of staff on site to minimum possible levels and all non-essential staff would return home. These measures were expected to remain in place for three months, resulting in a lower level of wellfield development activity and, in consequence, a reduction in production volumes. Based on that assumption, Kazatomprom expected its annual uranium production volume for 2020 to decrease by up to 4,000 tU from previous expectations (previously 22,750 tU to 22,800 tU on a 100% basis). The reduced production level is not expected to impact Kazatomprom’s 2020 sales obligations.

At the Cigar Lake uranium mine in northern Saskatchewan, Canada, production was temporarily suspended and the facility placed in safe care and maintenance mode during the COVID-19 pandemic. This reduced the workforce on site from around 300 to 35, enabling improved physical distancing and enhanced safety precautions. In addition, production was suspended at the McClean Lake uranium mill, where ore from Cigar Lake is normally processed.

It was reported that all mining, including uranium mining, was suspended in South Africa. In Namibia, the Rössing Uranium mine, which is located in the Erongo Region, discontinued normal mining operations and entered a period of minimal mining operations. As a safety measure critical maintenance work will continue. Namibia’s President Hage Geingob said on April 14 that a partial lockdown would remain in force at mining operations for a further two-and-a-half weeks until May 4. Mining operations in Namibia resumed after that date.

At the Lance Project in Wyoming, USA, Peninsula Energy decided to suspend until further notice any non-essential site activities. In addition, a customer order was brought forward from April, with delivery of 116,000 pounds of U3O8.

In South Africa, Harmony Gold Mining Company announced that during the lockdown to end of April 2020, operations at their underground mines would restart, but at no more than 50% of capacity. Subsequently capacity will be increased as determined by the Minister of Mineral Resources and Energy.

Conversion, Enrichment and Fuel Fabrication

In Canada, the Cameo UF6 plant at the Port Hope Conversion Facility was placed in a temporary safe shutdown state for about four weeks and, where possible, maintenance work scheduled for the summer were advanced. Since the majority of the UO3 produced at the Blind River Refinery is used to produce UF6 at the conversion facility, the refinery’s production was also temporarily suspended and, where possible, summer maintenance work brought forward. Both operations are planned to restart the week of May 18, 2020 and achieve regular production levels the week of May 25, 2020.

Reactor Operations

The reduction in industrial and other activity in countries taking countermeasures against COVID-19 is reducing overall electricity demand.

In South Africa electricity demand has fallen by 7,000-9,000 GW. Eskom took some generation units offline, and from midnight Friday 3 April added Koeberg Unit 2 to these units. Koeberg Unit 2 was scheduled to return to service by 30 April, if not called before then. Eskom has also notified wind power producers that it may have to curtail their supply access to the grid.

In Sweden the restart of Ringhals unit 1 has been delayed because of currently supressed market prices.

In China some reactors reduced their power output according to the requirements of the grid. As countermeasures were lifted plants returned to full power.

The up to 20% fall in electricity demand forecast for France, combined with rescheduled and altered maintenance outages, has resulted in EDF reducing its estimates for annual nuclear output to approximately 300TWh in 2020, and to 330-360TWh for both 2021 and 2022.

In Ukraine, Energoatom temporarily withdrew from service three of its 15 nuclear power units in line with forecasts of reduced electricity demand during the coronavirus pandemic. The projected balance of electricity production by Ukraine's nuclear power plants this year has decreased by 8.6%. Zaporozhe unit 2 will be offline between 21 April and 30 June (71 days), Zaporozhe unit 6 between 10 May and 15 August (98 days), and Rovno unit 3 between 10 May and 4 August (87 days). Energoatom is operating ten of its 15 reactors at a combined 52% of capacity, a historically low level, due to the weak power demand.

Energoatom operates four nuclear power plants with a total installed capacity of 13,830 MW. However, with only 10 units now operating, just 6,630 MW are being used to generate electricity, Kotyn said.

The Ukrainian government declared a state of emergency and ordered a lockdown for most of the country between March 24 and April 24 to slow the spread of coronavirus. It later extended the lockdown through May 22, after allowing some non-essential businesses to reopen May 11.

The lockdown triggered a massive power market crisis with demand for power dropping sharply in March and April, forcing the government to order Energoatom to shut units and reduce generation at several other reactors. 

In Spain, in addition to outages carried out at Ascó and Almaraz (see below) two other reactors are running at reduced rates because of the lower overall demand during the peak of the pandemic.

In the United Kingdom output from the Sizewell B plant was reduced on 12 May to help with grid management. The partial outage is due to continue until 19 June.

In some cases working hours arrangements are being modified to account for working conditions during the pandemic. In the US the Nuclear Regulatory Commission had granted exemptions from work-hour controls to seven nuclear power plants, as of 27 April.

Reactor Outages

In Spain the Ascó I nuclear plant in Tarragona and Almaraz I in Cáceres rescheduled their outages for fuel loading. Both outages were delayed, and additional work will now be carried out at Almaraz to enable the plant to operate without the need for an additional outage later this year, so that the plant can operate uninterrupted to meet the expected increase in demand as the economy recovers.

The outage planned for Mochovce unit 1 starting at the end of March was revised to focus only on the most important works based on approval by the Slovak Nuclear Regulatory Authority, hence minimising the number of people required and their social interaction in the nuclear power plant premises. The main goal of the Mochovce nuclear power plant outage was to replace about one fifth of the fuel in the reactor and to carry out repairs and investment projects to increase the plant‘s safety. 

At the Bruce nuclear power plant activities on the Major Component Replacement project, which will extend the operating life, were narrowed to essential tasks to allow Bruce Power to focus on generating electricity and production of cobalt-60 for medical sterilization.

DTE Energy announced it would consider the scope and duration of a service outage at Fermi 2 in Michigan.

Czech utility CEZ extended the ongoing outage of its 498-MW Dukovany-3 until the start of May, in part because of low power demand. Extra inspection and maintenance on the reactor's primary circuit were added to the initial workload. Most of the planned maintenance and investment work was completed and the loading of new fuel was finished, as of early April. The operators taking advantage of the fact that current electricity demand in the Czech Republic has gone down by around 10% to carry out the additional work.

The scheduled refuelling and maintenance outage at Tennessee Valley Authority's Sequoya Unit 2 was reduced in scope. This reduced the amount of work required for this outage, significantly reducing the number of supplemental workers that would be brought on site. The plant has also taken multiple, significant actions to help protect the health and wellbeing of employees and supplemental workers, including required health screenings prior to plant entry each day.

EDF has announced that execution of work that was due to be performed during upcoming maintenance outages in France has been significantly affected, thereby reducing power output capacity. EDF is consequently adjusting its maintenance outage plan in order to optimise output capacity.

Construction

Activities on construction sites are being reduced or stopped and new working practices introduced. At the Hinkley Point C plant under construction in the UK staff numbers have been reduced by more than half and will be reduced further as work in progress is completed. Site workers using local accommodation are now housed at Hinkley Point C’s two campus sites and extra buses for travel on-site have been provided to reduce the number of workers using each bus.

Work was halted on some reactors under construction in China in response to the COVID-19 virus. As work gradually resumed, countermeasures were introduced for the employees returning to site.

The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and related government responses could disrupt or delay construction, testing, supervisory and support activities at the Vogtle 3 and 4 construction project, in Georgia, USA, but it is too early to say what those effects will be, according to Southern Company.

It has been reported that construction of Rooppur nuclear power plant in Bangladesh is progressing, but at a considerably slower pace. Although a delay in project implementation has not been created yet, the eventual project completion will depend on what further disruption there will be from the COVID-19 situation.

The Rooppur plant consists of two reactors that are being built in partnership with the Russian nuclear industry company Rosatom. A total of seven Russian-designed reactors are being constructed in Bangladesh, Belarus, India, and Turkey. Rosatom General Director Alexey Likhachov said on 1 April that the company was working to give Rosatom personnel working on construction sites abroad the chance to return home during the COVID-19 crisis. 

Continuation of work at Rosatom's overseas construction projects is guided by the recommendations of the disease control services and governments of the respective countries in which construction is taking place.

At the Genkai plant in Japan construction on a backup control centre has been halted on 14 April after a worker involved in the engineering work tested positive for COVID-19. Kyushu Electric is aiming to complete the backup control center by August 2020 for Genkai-3 and by September for its Genkai-4.

Waste Management and Decommissioning

At the Sellafield site in Cumbria, UK, the Magnox reprocessing plant has been closed down as a precaution to better prepare it for restart. The Magnox reprocessing plant treats fuel that was used in the UK Magnox reactors, the first generation of reactors used in the country. These reactors were already closed having reached the end of their operational life, and the Magnox reprocessing plant was already due to close in 2020, so this will have no impact on the operation of the UK’s AGR and PWR reactors. In the north-west of France operations at the La Hague reprocessing plant were also suspended, some operations have subsequently resumed.

The scheduling for the controlled detonation of the cooling towers of the Phillipsburg-2 will take into account the further development of the COVID-19 pandemic and will take place in mid-May at the earliest. EnBW's Philippsburg unit 2 in Baden-Wurttemberg, southwest Germany, was shut down on 31 December 2019.

Regulation

A number of inspectors from UK's regulator, ONR, will continue to travel to sites where required but as much business as possible will be carried out by phone, email and Skype. France's regulator, ASN, is removing non-essential direct physical contact to limit the spread of the virus and giving priority to the control of operating facilities.

Reactor Planning

The Bulgarian government has pushed back the deadline for the submission of offers for a tender to select an investor for the construction of the planned two-unit Belene nuclear power plant. Investors will be given a further 4-6 weeks. Measures taken as a result of the coronavirus outbreak have limited access to the project's data room.

EDF is presenting its application for a Development Consent Order (DCO) to build Sizewell C a few weeks later than planned because of the coronavirus crisis. The application for the new nuclear power station was due to be submitted to the Planning Inspectorate by the end of March 2020. EDF will also allow more time for people to register as participants for the public examination phase of the DCO process. This will help to ensure local communities have enough time to review the application and participate. EDF is liaising with the Planning Inspectorate to discuss how normal arrangements can be flexed so that communities are not disadvantaged by the current difficult circumstances.

EDF Energy announced in May 2020 that it has applied to the Planning Inspectorate for a Development Consent Order (DCO) to build the Sizewell C nuclear power plant on the Suffolk coast of England. The application, which followed four rounds of public consultation that began in 2012, was deferred for two months "in recognition of the extraordinary circumstances created by the Coronavirus", according to EDF.

The managing director of Sizewell C, Humphrey Cadoux-Hudson, said the infrastructure project would kick-start the economy following the pandemic, offer thousands of high-quality job opportunities and long-term employment as well as strengthening the nuclear supply chain across the country.

Nuclear technology to help combat COVID-19

Nuclear technologies have medical applications that will help combat COVID-19. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is providing diagnostic kits, equipment and training in nuclear-derived detection techniques to countries asking for assistance in tackling the worldwide spread of the novel coronavirus causing COVID-19. The assistance, requested by 14 countries in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean, is part of intensified global efforts to contain infections.

In China, industrial irradiation facilities were made available for the treatment of medical supplies, not only to destroy the coronavirus, but also to disinfect and sterilize medical supplies to remove any other virus or bacteria.

In Russia, irradiation facilities have sterilized 7,853,480 medical masks (as of April 28), as well as 151,000 portable lab kits to test for COVID-19.

In addition, maintaining the operation of reactors used for the preparation of medical isotopes will allow for the continued use of these vital materials for the diagnosis and treatment of other illnesses.


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